Grinding to Valhalla

Interviewing the gamer with a thousand faces

Posts Tagged ‘One shot’

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:

MMO Tidbits

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.darklands

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.

piratesI 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.

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One shot: Geldon

Posted by Randolph Carter on October 13, 2009

Interview with blogger and fledgling independent game designer Geldon Yetichsky who discusses his game blog, Digitally Staving Off Boredom, and talks about his own gaming background, his blogging experience and what working with BYOND, a free online game development suite, has been like.

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MMO community connection:

Digitally Staving Off Boredom

Please take a minute and describe what your blog is about.

The actual subject of what my blog, Digitally Staving Off Boredom, is about has been largely in flux for some time. Much like MMORPGs, there’s a lot of blogs out there these days, and so finding a niche is important.

I knew early on from my visiting sites such as Lum The Mad or Old Man Murray that if I wanted to be a popular blog, I should probably entertain my visitors. People like to laugh, it would bring them back. However, it turns out I rarely was in the mood to tell jokes, I prefer to be more of a straight man, so that didn’t pan out.

For awhile, I thought perhaps I would be an aggregation blog whose goal was to find “the diamonds in the rough” amidst all the cloned crap in the gaming universe right now. That too didn’t pan out, partly because there’s way too much crap out there for one person to reliably to sift through, and partly because I really was not feeling the calling to do so.

Right now, my Blog is mostly a soapbox where I talk about what I’ve been playing lately, what I feel they did right, and what I feel they could do better. This is because I have more of a concern on game development lately ever since I started dabbling with BYOND (a free online game development suite). I consider myself a fledging independent game designer who, having not released his first game yet, can still feel relatively free to constructively pan his future competition without facing legal repercussions.

What was your introduction to MMOs and what was that experience like?

I’ve been online gaming since way back, on a 300 baud modem using a Commodore 64 (I was about 10). I’ve been gaming regularly ever since, and so to me it seems as though MMOs are just another step along the lines of slow evolution from the old bulletin board system door games that I played as a kid. Consequently, the lines gets a bit blurry when you approach what constitutes my first MMO played.

If I had to take a stab in the dark, I’d have to say my first experience with an MMO would be Kesmai’s Multiplayer Battletech:EGA over GEnie. The core gameplay was basically identical to the first Mechwarrior PC game, but with two major differences. First, each of the up to 8 mechs that could be in the game were each controlled by an individual player (it was no longer a single player game). Second, there was now an out-of-battle game that involved several chat lobbies and several factions, where much organization and roleplay would take place – the bridge which made the game a MMO.

I did not play it very long, because MMO gameplay back then was something that was charged for on a dollars by the minute rate. In one electrifying weekend, I had an over $300 bill to explain to the parents, and that was that. However, the MMO bug had been planted.

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

Again, considering my history, things tend to blur together a bit. However, one experience that really stuck in my mind was back from the early days in EverQuest. Coming into the view of the entrance to Kaladim (the dwarven city) the first time and seeing these towering statues above it, entering the cave and actually seeing this city hewn out of the interior, this was very much a “wow!” moment for me.

There’s something about those early EverQuest environments that really made them feel more real to me than even recent MMORPGs have managed. There does not seem to be that kind of ambition towards hand-crafted MMORPG content anymore, things are so cut and pasty in comparison.

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

The term “hardcore gamer for life” applies rather well to me. I was hooked to gaming back on the Commodore 64 when I was kid and, while computers have changed, my habits have not. I’ve always been a bit of a fairly introverted type, so I haven’t felt much social pining to do otherwise.

I pretty much dedicate every scrap of spare time of waking hours I have towards the habit, outside of school or work. Given a series of days in which I may have no other obligations, something along the neighborhood of about 12 to 14 hours a day, I guess it comes out to about 90 hours a week, give or take.

Now? Not quite as much. I think I’ve become a bit jaded when it comes to games – it’s really hard to find one that entertains me for long anymore. I’ve seen all the old gimmicks, and new stuff doesn’t come around that often in this age of clones we live in. Consequently, game development can be a lot more satisfying for me and so I dedicate those hours to towards that – especially during a dry spell when quality entertainment seems completely out of my reach.

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

Though I’m primarily a PC gamer, I have branched out into consoles given the general lack of originality to be found in PC gaming (with the notable exception of indy games). I enjoy the exceptional range of exotic tastes to be found on the PS2, the mainstream American flavor of the X-Box 360, and the unique Nintendo craftsmanship on the Wii (on the few titles that aren’t kindergarten casual).

I particularly enjoy the Nintendo DS on the grounds that there’s a greater focus on gameplay on these smaller platforms since there’s not so much capacity to push whiz-bang graphics. Right now I’m playing Scribblenauts for example… it’s a very interesting concept, simply being able to summon any one of thousands of nouns is an incredible technical achievement, albeit it’s not particularly well balanced in this implementation.

Tabletop games, not so much. Though I have dabbled with some of the source materials of a few of them (notably Battletech) they are largely social activities. The big satisfaction tabletop game isn’t so much rolling the dice and advancing in levels so much as applying your imagination with friends. There’s a lesson there that many contemporary CRPG developers overlook.

What MMO(s) are you currently playing?

Champions Online, just released last month. I put over 1600 hours into City of Heroes (that’s just the time logged when I had XFire running) and so the spiritual successor of the game definitely has my attention.

It probably would have been a bit better received if they did not make so many last-few-months adjustments to the core underlying power mechanic, cutting short the time they had to really balance the powers out. Further, the content is a bit sparse, partly because they’ve been tweaking advancement rate and so some of the content is skipped as players out-level it.

However, Cryptic Studios is a fairly outstanding bunch, and they’ve been fixing what’s broken with the game at a downright aggressive pace. Against my earlier reservations, I shelled out for a 6 month subscription to the game upon its release, as I expect to see a much better product by the time comes around to consider a renewal.

Would you mind sharing a particularly enjoyable gaming experience?

As you can imagine with a fellow who plays games as often as I do, I’ve so many particularly enjoyable gaming experiences to draw upon that it’s hard to isolate just one (though less so given the prevalence of clones these days).

I think the last game I really enjoyed to an extent reminiscent of my start as a gamer would be Psychonauts. While the game was a platformer on the surface, there was just an incredible soul conveyed through the thing. I really connected well with all the characters in the game – the campers and councilors of this summer camp for psychics – and also the surrounding environment. From the beginning to the end of the game, I was fairly riveted – me, a PC gamer playing a platformer, of all things. All hail Goggalor.

Double Fine really is a batch of truly outstanding developers, perhaps the best in the business I can readily recall. I look forward to getting my hands on a copy of Brutal Legend soon. I really hope they don’t suffer the fate of similar studios which are simply too good for mainstream appreciation. (E.g. Clover Studio, maker of Viewtiful Joe and Okami.)

When did you first start blogging? Would you mind taking us up to present with all of your projects?

My very first blog was started July of 2004. It started when I lost my last real full time job and went on for about 700 posts before I took that private and did a reboot. The reboot was Digitally Staving Off Boredom, it continued for nearly 300 posts on Blogger before I took it to WordPress, where I now have about 200 published posts.

Presently, I’m mostly focused on fledging game development. I’ve been working with BYOND. BYOND is a very interesting suite in that it’s free but allows you to construct a remarkably diverse amount of games which automatically include optional tile based graphics and online functionality. They even include a great web portal.

I’ve been dabbling a lot with it on and off over the past couple years, getting really good at the code (prior to this I’ve only brushed up against C++, Java, and Visual Basic). I hope to turn out something there “soon.” Thus far, I’ve done many experiments in trying to push the envelope of gamekind, but I’ve yet to see something through to completion. My “progress” (or lack thereof) can be tracked on my BYOND portal blog.

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

I use my blogs for a lot of purposes.

I do have one for personal venting, that’s private, and I think I largely keep that one up out of a certain nostalgic consideration that I might just look back at it some day – it’s more of a journal (talk about old school).

My Digitally Staving Off Boredom blog is perhaps best described as temporal art, largely revolving around my angst as a dedicated computer gamer who is a bit jaded about what happened when his favorite hobby went mainstream. Here, I post up things I find interesting at the time and maybe later I’ll take them down. This isn’t done out of dishonesty, but rather because I feel that a blog is a place where I can put my best face forward and tell the world what I think needs to be said. (Also, once in a great while, I’ll write up a hint guide, and when it comes at you with 26 years of gaming experience it might just be worth a read.)

Finally, there’s my most recent blog over at BYOND which I just mentioned. It is largely used to publicize my struggles in highly independent game development.

Do you have a schedule or some sort of routine you try and follow when blogging?

For Digitally Staving Off Boredom, it waxes and wanes as the mood takes it. I’ve decided I want to have something to say, and so if I feel I don’t particularly have anything worthwhile then I resist the temptation to write something. Inspiration (the muse) is a fickle beast, it does not beget true progress to hold it to a schedule.

For my BYOND blog, I try to have an entry up every Monday just to let people know what I’ve been working on that week. It’s a very embarrassing bunch of reflection on my lack of progress since Champions Online’s release and I returned to school over the past month.

What do you find pleasurable about blogging?

I think I get the artist’s appreciation out of blogging – whether or not anyone else particularly appreciates one’s art, simply the creation of the artifact feels worthwhile it that it is a manifestation of something outside of yourself. I’m not going to fool myself into saying it’s an immortal part of myself – if I got hit by a meteor tomorrow and WordPress caught wind of it, my blog would probably be gone in a flash – but it’s good to produce something, be able to look at it, and think the world is imperceptibly better with it than it was without.

Are you pleased with how your blog has been received in the blogosphere?

Generally speaking, my blog doesn’t attract a whole lot of hits. If I crest 100 hits it’s a good day. However, I don’t blog out of aspirations for popularity, nor do I make any money from it. I blog because I think I have something to say. So I’m about as pleased as one can be when they think they have something to say that someone might trip over accidentally from time to time.

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

Given my current expectations, no. However, in an alternate universe where I care a lot more about whether or not people take the time to glean my wisdom (such as it is)? I think I would have told a lot more jokes in order to keep them coming around.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to try their hand at blogging?

It’s certainly good to know the true motivation behind your reason for blogging. I started off not knowing what I would do with my blog, and it ended up mutating between so many different focuses that it required a reboot or two. If you’re in it for money or the popularity, you’re going to have way different motivations than I do. If you’re not, then don’t let a relatively low number of hits bother you: after all, the mainstream sucks.

You wake up to a world where you are the head of a company developing an MMO. You have unlimited funds and resources available to you. Please describe the kind of game you would make.

On an off over the years, it’s become robustly clear that the ultimate geek fantasy would be a completely free-roaming universe game that includes interaction on both the ship travel level and the personal level (walking about planets, space stations, ect).

The pitch line is Mass Effect Online, but it would actually have largely different game mechanics, neither borrowing from EverQuest nor Gears of War. Instead, it would have game mechanics owing largely to its completely dynamically generated universe, one where when the players do things, they actually matter, the quest does not simply reset 5 minutes later.

Though dynamic, it would also well balanced in such a way that the players do not possess absolute power but rather are individual members of the major factions within the games, and consequently the newbies are able to be something more than perpetual wage slaves for the established players.

Ironically, the game would probably never be released because, in a scenario with unlimited funds and resources, the refinement cycle can go on indefinitely.

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