“Be Attitude For Gains”
What’s up, Dedan! So glad you could take some time out to be interviewed today. When I decided to do these interviews you were one of the first people I wanted to contact.
“Thanks Marcus! Glad to be here!”
So, can you tell me, where do you work now and what is your official title?
“Yep, sure, I’m currently at IGT as a Game Designer/Prototyper. I prototype concepts for the other designers on the team as well as design games.”
What are the types of games IGT creates?
“They mainly do casino games, both what they call landbased (which are the machines in the casino) and online. So slot machines and slot games.”
When we met years ago, at one of the E3 conventions held in Atlanta, you were a programmer, right?
“Yes, I started in the industry as a programmer, we probably met right around the introduction of the Playstation [laughs], so yeah I was mainly coding back then, I had an interest in design but nothing professionally until later. My first official design project was the Space Invaders remake or remix for Playstation and N64.”
You’ve been in the game industry a long time.
“It doesn’t seem like it but I guess it has been, I came in at the tail end of the 16-bit era, I got to work on Genesis and Sega CD, right before Sony entered the market. So yeah it was a while ago.” [Laughs]
“I really started before that on the Jaguar with a little start-up some friends and I had, but it didn’t really come together.” [Laughs]
That’s not unheard of for many startup game companies. So, I’m sure you have many titles that you’ve worked on in your career. Can you list some of the ones that have been released?
“Sure, I have to plug my mobile game I Heart Alien, [laughs] but let’s see… We worked on Dance Central 3 together! That was a fun project, man! And some highlights would be NBA 2K4 for Visual Concepts, I mentioned Space Invaders for Activision, Splatterhouse for Namco and Golden Axe: Beast Rider for Sega. Also Monster Force on GBA for Digital Eclipse/Universal Interactive.”
I know that is a truncated list from all the games you’ve worked on. One, that I recall that you didn’t mention was that one Monkey King game for the original Playstation.
“Monkey Hero for BMG interactive which later became Rock Star. [Laughs] That was one of my first titles. I worked on their collision system and some of their tools, if I remember correctly. Blam was a cool company (they were the developer), full of game fanatics, they used to buy import games every week (or almost every week), they had a neo-geo set up as well. I got exposed to a ton of games there! Very pivotal experience… very educational! [Laughs] Crazy and fun place. [Laughs] This was back when the Saturn was out, so we got to see some really obscure titles.. like Umihara Kawase (which was on Playstation), and Dodonpachi and Silhouette Mirage, list goes on and on…”
So, let’s step back a bit and talk about your journey into games. Where did you grow up?
“I grew up in NYC, Harlem to be precise. My first intro to games was probably Pong, if I remember correctly, the one you’d hook up to your TV… and then it was Space Invaders and arcade games of that time, Asteroids, Scramble, Defender etc… I was really into those… I always wanted to know how they were made… around the same time I had started playing around with BASIC, some of the kids at my school had computers, TI’s and were doing LOGO, but my father had an old Commodore Pet so I was doing BASIC. Writing in listings from COMPUTE! magazine and stuff…”
“But yeah, mainly arcade games drew me into the industry.”
That’s a good draw. I had a similar experience. Did you have a computer in your home growing up?
“My father had one, I would go there weekends and plug away at the listings for hours on end… some of the games would be fun but they were rarely graphical… that came a bit later when the Apple II+ was out. My uncle bought one as a present and that was a wrap. [Laughs] Graphics!”
“As a designer, I think you have to be able to analyze experiences and communicate your concepts.”
Graphics! So, did you try any coding in those early days at home? When did you really get exposed to serious programming. College?
“I was writing code on the Apple II+ but it was mainly BASIC, I couldn’t find any information on Assembly, which is what all the games were written in back then, until later. I was very amateur, I would say now, until I went to college, then I learned a bunch about algorithms, data structures and the like. So I would say in college I went from hacker to programmer or somewhere in the middle, to be honest.” [Laughs]
Where did you go to college?
“I went to UC Berkeley and studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Learned a ton! Most of it I forgot.” [Laughs]
We’ve all forgotten stuff from college. UC Berkeley is a great school.
“Yeah, it seemed good, I don’t have anything to compare it to, [laughs] but I learned a ton.”
True. So, how did you journey from Berkeley into video game development? Also, why games and not bank databases or something?
“It’s always been games. I’ve always had a fascination with them and it’s been what I’ve wanted to do since I saw Pong, Space Invaders, Defender, etc… Bank databases probably would have been more stable [laughs] though but i don’t find that compelling.”
“From Berkeley I joined some friends in their startup, they had some Jaguar dev kits and were working on a mech-game concept, they wanted me to help out with music because I DJ’d but they didn’t know i could program too. I was like, I want to help program it! And so that’s how I got started…”
How fortuitous! So, did they let you program? How did you meet these friends? Where they classmates?
“Yeah, one went to Cal but was further ahead so I never had him in class, the other was an artist. They did let me code, we were doing voxels and I helped figure out how to do them.” [Laughs]
Voxels?! That’s nuts.
“Haha yeah, well the lead coder, Darryl, is always ahead of the curve. So we were doing voxels using raycasting, they weren’t true voxels since they weren’t 3d cubes but it approximated them with the ray casting, which was what Doom was using to do their 3d rendering. Fun times.” [Laughs]
On the Jaguar. You all were looking for pain.
“Ha, yeah I think we were gluttons for punishment. [Laughs] Darryl was from the demo scene, so always had crazy concepts.” [Laughs]
So, how did you make the transition from game programmer into game designer?
“As a programmer on a game you are lead by the design, I had started to realize that some of the games I was working were being over designed. I was doing a bunch of work but the experience wasn’t improving proportional to the energy going in. Zelda is a good example of a well designed game, the early ones, the enemies weren’t overly complicated but it was how all those parts interacted that made it a compelling experience. So I started realizing this and got interested in game design seriously. I was probably always interested but I wanted to put my ideas to the test, so to speak. I hope that made sense.” [Laughs]
It does. So, how did you make that transition, did you have to convince someone that you are not just a programmer?
“I think it was luck. My first professional design was on Space Invaders, before I got on it, it was in disarray and not fun at all. This was a remix, Asteroids had done well, so Activision wanted to strike gold again with Space Invaders. One of the artist on the project was a good friend of mine, and we always talked design, so I think he suggested that I come in and help finish it. I came in as a programmer on the bosses but also as a designer. I came up with this color power-up system, where you destroy three aliens of the same color and you get a powerful shot that can take out a row or a column. If the levels are designed properly you can chain those power ups to take out the level quickly. It was a fun addition, highly inspired by puzzle games, of course.” [Laughs]
Very nice. So, fast forward, you are IGT now. You talked a bit about your responsibilities there. Can you give us an overview of your typical work day?
“Sure, we usually work on several games at once there, so your day has to be very scheduled. A typical day would be to come in, check emails and I try to check gaming news if I’m not too busy. Then throughout the day you’d have meetings with your respective teams. These are usually just status meetings. If I have a prototype to do, I’d have to meet with the designer and keep them abreast of my progress. Other than that we do A LOT of math. [Laughs] We are checking the game’s math to make sure it’s giving the proper amount of money away, or you are coming up with math for features. It’s pretty interesting because it’s not everyday you get to use math for a fun outcome.”
Nice. So, the prototypes you create, are you coding up the ideas? What do you use to prototype your concepts?
“They have a framework that they have used for a while, it’s C# based. I’ll code up the designers concepts but of course the art and audio are far from final, but the advantage to prototyping is that we can tweak really quickly before committing engineering resources on it. Since online games are a bit more complicated (server and client communication etc…), it’s good to get the kinks out and get the experience, mechanically, you want, first.”
So, you have a job that mixes all of your career experience.
“Yes! Hard to find that. [Laughs] Some companies get confused, we don’t know what you want to do. It’s weird.”
“Something about working in a team that’s fun – especially when everyone is on the same page!”
Yeah, if you demonstrate multiple skills you could get pushed toward choosing one. Or getting spread too thin to do too much. So, keeping that in mind, what skills or traits do you think are important for your area(s) of expertise?
“As a designer, I think you have to be able to analyze experiences and communicate your concepts. As a programmer you have to know how to code but also I think for both you need to have drive, a passion, because there will be points where it’s uphill, as I’m sure you know, where you are like, why isn’t this fun, or why isn’t this working… so drive is extremely key there, it’s easy to throw in the towel, but stick with it!”
Yeah, my mother always said, “If you have a problem, you probably aren’t asking the right question.” It’s hard to develop the skill to step back from a problem and determine the right angle to create a solution.
“So true! Sometimes you have to slow down, step back, and it’s tough to do that because you have a ton of pressure from deadlines, milestones etc… but it’s worth it!”
Looking back, what do you think was your biggest misconception about the video game industry?
“I think I’ve always had a realistic view of what to expect, or maybe I’ve just been doing it so long I have forgotten my misconceptions, or they have been beaten out of me. [Laughs] I do hear a lot of misconceptions from people outside the industry, like you guys get to play games all day, that sounds easy. [Laughs] But no it’s a job like any other, it’s work, and you have to work with other folks, so there’s that factor, and yeah, at the end you hope to put something out that’s fun but it’s work!”
Yes. Yes. And yes. These are jobs and they take work, but there is fun.
“[Laughs] Yes, of course! Something about working in a team that’s fun – especially when everyone is on the same page!”
So, are there any development tools you like to use? Any favorite programs?
“Currently I have become a fledgling master of Excel! [Laughs] Also I use the common tools like Word and Photoshop, Visio etc. Unity, of course, seems to be important but I haven’t got around to it yet!”
“In the past it’s been a lot of proprietary authoring tools.”
Hah! Fledgling master.
“I thought I knew Excel before working at IGT… boy, was I wrong!” [Laughs]
Do you have any favorite websites or resources you like to reference?
“Youtube is my goto, I have a ton of subscriptions. I also like Siliconera.com as my taste align with theirs, and anything Sega!” [Laughs]
I love Sega! Hedgehog for life!
“Yes! That’s your legacy, your lineage!”
We have a bit of time left, I’d really like to know what’s on your mind? Think of this as your platform to reach the masses. What would you like to share?
“Hmm… if you are thinking of getting in the game industry, I would recommend making some games with some friends, learning a programming language or at least familiarize yourself, even if you are an artist! It’s a fun industry, and it’s a place where you can be creative within realistic boundaries of course!”
How true. If you could go back in and start your career over, would you do anything differently?
“Hmm, I think it would be to work closer with marketing, sometimes you can have a great concept but if marketing doesn’t set up expectations correctly, it doesn’t matter! [Laughs] I look back on NBA 2K4 and the relationship with marketing was really good, the 24/7 feature was communicated to them, they even named it, it was called growth mode before that (yuch!)… and they felt ownership and championed it. That’s key, the synergy between design and marketing.”
Last question. If given “infinite time and budget” what game or game genre would you make?
“If I didn’t have to give the money back? [Laughs] I would probably just make a lot of small games, probably mobile, different genres. If I didn’t necessarily have to make their money back, I could experiment a ton… if I had to give it back, I’d do slots. Hah!”
Thanks for your time Dedan. If people wanted to reach you, where can they find you on the internets, socials and such?
“Thank you, Marcus!!!”