Samuel Villanueva – Senior Game Designer

Samuel Villanueva – Senior Game Designer

“Plays well with others.”

Sam, good to chat with you!

Marcus! Great to chat with you as well.”


You are one of the first designers I’ve ever met who I didn’t work with.  Did you know that?

Actually, no…it makes sense, but since it’s such a small industry (particularly where we were both based out of), I would’ve guessed that you had met a few others. Now I feel honored!”


What is your title?

“Senior Game Designer.”


Can you name some of the titles you’ve worked on in your career?

Let’s see…Gex 2 & 3, Soul Reaver 2, Whiplash, Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror & Logan’s Shadow, Resistance: Retribution, Uncharted: Golden Abyss, Uncharted: Fight for Fortune.”


That’s a pretty long list.  I think one of the first conversations I had with you was about Whiplash.  I think it was at E3 the year it was shown.

Yup, I’m pretty sure that’s around when we first met each other. Whiplash was a blast to work on! It had a fun premise and some solid ideas (especially concerning the nature of in-game collectibles & and player motivation).”


unchartedGA_Can you elaborate on the in-game collectibles? What sort of challenges did you have designing Whiplash?

The main ‘collectibles’ in the game were destructible objects themed to each area. Each item had a price tag, and the act of breaking them added to a growing tally of how much money you were costing ‘the company’ during your escape. We were able to lead the player around with expensive looking gadgets to destroy, which tended to be a very attractive draw. The items made contextual sense in the game, and the player ended up exploring quite a bit.”


I imagine coming up with the items and their looks was most challenging.  They had to look like collectibles, but also looked like part of the environment.

That took a lot of collaboration between the design and art teams. Once the theme of an area was agreed upon, we’d jump into brainstorming the types of breakable items you’d see in any given area. This helped define the general feel of the area, and there was a great deal of iteration during development as new ideas poured in.”


“Drawing from experiences and inspirations outside of games helps me bring a different perspective to the table, which is often more useful and inspirational than a discussion between a room full of people all drawing from the same well.”

Whiplash was a unique game, but designing for each game you make has unique challenges, even if they are similar genres.  Is there any particular design challenge that stood out for you?  What game was it, and what was the challenge?

Player direction was a bit of a challenge in Soul Reaver 2. We were going for a very unobtrusive UI for the game, along with a realistic amount of information given to the player. If they didn’t somehow see it in the environment, there were only a few tools (inner monologue, enemy spawn locations, etc.) at our disposal to move the player along. ‘Bouncing Arrows’ just weren’t in the cards.”


Bouncing arrows don’t work thematically.

Nope, not particularly. In contrast, directing the player in Syphon Filter almost felt like ‘cheating’, since the main character always had radio contact with another character. We could easily dole information out via dialogue (along with a few useful gadget mechanics), so player direction was far less of an issue.”


Well, when you get two designers talking we tend to talk about design things.  Let’s move onto something I don’t know.  How did you break into the industry?  

I was a focus tester (along with some friends) for the original PS1, which led to a gig at an early (maybe the first in L.A.) E3. This led to a Q/A position in Northern California, and everything spread from there.”


samV03Focus tester for the PS1?  So, this was some marketing event?  They wanted feedback on the controller feel or something?  

“We gave feedback on everything from the early controller designs (the handles were *much* longer initially) to launch titles (I was convinced Battle Arena Toshinden was going to be a breakout hit) to packaging and mascot ideas.”


So, what was the gig at E3?  It’s not known for focus testers to move into paying jobs. You must have had some rockstar feedback.  How did that connect to QA jobs?

They brought us on as ‘Game Coaches’, working the booth to demonstrate launch titles during the show. The QA jobs actually came as a result of a few of the guys using the opportunity to spread their resume around. It paid off, and they ended up taking positions in Northern California (some at smaller companies, and others at ‘Sega-U’)”

“One of the guys decided to move from Crystal Dynamics to Sony QA, and recommended me for his (now vacant) position. I got the call on Wednesday, let my family know what was going on Thursday, and was on a 1-way flight to SFO on Friday.”


That’s awesome.  QA is where many get their start, including me.  You didn’t stay in QA.  How did you make the jump from QA into game designer?

“Crystal was the perfect environment for someone looking to move from QA to Dev. The developers were in-house and accessible, and it was possible to stand out by grabbing more responsibility and communicating well with the team.”

“Around six months in, I was interviewed by the design leads on the Gex team. Once my QA contract was up, they offered a lucky few (including myself) design spots on Gex 2.”


resistance_retributionThey were a pretty small group back then, if I remember correctly.  Easy to make a name for yourself.

Fairly small (two teams sharing the QA dept.), and the devs weren’t afraid to come and talk directly to us for any clarification, feedback, or special testing needs.”


Moving into design after 6 months was a great opportunity.  You grew up in southern California.  Did you always want to be a game designer?  Did you foresee this path for yourself when you moved to the North?

I’ve always loved games and problem solving. Although, most of my consoles were either second-hand or late in their cycle, I’d play anything I could get my hands on. My friends and I were heavily into the local arcade scene, and we entered all sorts of tournaments in our free time. They were mainly for fighting games like Street Fighter, Samurai Shodown, and Tekken… but also a few random games like Rampart and Welltris.”

“I was convinced that I’d take a non-traditional career path when I graduated high school, and game design seemed like a perfect fit. Once I moved north and realized what was possible within the industry, it was obviously where I wanted to be.”


Where did you graduate from?

I had finished high school in West Torrance and was working on a dual major (English/Speech) at El Camino Community College (with the plan to finish out a Public Relations degree at Long Beach), when I got the call from Crystal Dynamics.”


Do you find the process of designing a game changed from game to game?  How do you typically spend your work day?

While there are plenty of general design practices that translate from project to project, each one always presents unique concerns and/or challenges.”

“My day generally consists of problem solving… and there’s always something to fix, define, implement or iterate on. Days usually start with responding to any new questions/e-mails and checking in with the creative director/lead to see if anything has changed or come up, then I move on to my current task list. If we’re early in development I might be defining a mechanic, or listing out the types of assets needed for a particular environment idea. If we’re in production, I’ll be deep in population and/or tuning tasks, along with general team management. If we’re in QA, I’m squashing bugs.”


What skill or trait has served you well throughout your career?

Having a diverse set of interests, along with general curiosity as to how things mesh together. Drawing from experiences and inspirations outside of games helps me bring a different perspective to the table, which is often more useful and inspirational than a discussion between a room full of people all drawing from the same well.”


Are there specifically any tools, programs, or plugins you like to use in your daily work?

Adobe Illustrator is a great tool for layout…but my favorite design tool is a basic bullet-pointed list (Word, Notepad, whatever). Designers generally have a ‘shorthand’ for ideas, but the ability to clearly present an idea, task, or plan is key when communicating with the other disciplines (art/code/production). People generally tune out a wall of text, so a clear & concise list of points is almost always the best way to go.”


soul-reaver-2-playstation-2-front-coverHow do you like to spend your free time?

“Absorbing media (games/movies/tv/books) and spending time with my wife and friends. When things are perfect, these overlap. There’s never enough time to watch/play/read everything, so I’m always cycling through stuff.”


I would have thought you would have said, “Discussing Hearthstone strategies with you!”

That has taken up a good amount of my time lately, and fits perfectly well with what I’ve stated above. Discussing and playing any game (Hearthstone, for example) is a great way to both absorb media *and* spend time with a friend!”


How do you keep up on the latest game design trends and techniques?  Any websites you frequent?  Twitter accounts you follow? Or other things like that?

There are a few gaming podcasts (Giant Bomb, Podcast Beyond, etc.) that I listen to, but the best way to keep up is to keep playing games, preferably from a variety of genres. Talking about games after-the-fact with friends and other devs is fun, informative, and educational… but someone else’s subjective response isn’t nearly as valuable if you haven’t created your own gameplay experience to compare/contrast it to.”

“I do love that we’ve gotten to a point where we have a solid common language to talk academically about game design, and I enjoy reading any articles on the subject that’ve been forwarded/linked to me.”


What advice would you give someone pursuing a game design position?

1.) Play everything that interests you, and be prepared to talk about it. A good portion of your job will involve acting on your own ideas and opinions, so you need to *have* ideas and opinions in the first place.”

“2.) Produce! There are plenty of free development tools out there, and nothing keeping you from kicking together playable examples of your ideas.”

“3.) Collaborate with like-minded people. Enter game jams, meet other aspiring devs and learn to work with others in a creative environment.”


If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say?  What is your tagline?

Plays well with others.”


Thanks for your time, Sam.  

No problem at all, take care!”

+ There are no comments

Add yours

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.