Larry Charles – Senior Game Designer
“Hopeless romantic who believes everything that is impossible just hasn’t been done, yet.”
Mr. Larry Charles, thanks for chatting with me today!
“Of course, no problem. I’m glad to be a part of this. Thank you for having me.”
Can you tell me your current job title, and where do you currently work?
“[Laughs] Well as of exactly this moment, I am a Level Designer at Obsidian Entertainment. As of Tuesday March 1st, I’ll be a Sr. Game Designer at Section Studios in Los Angeles.”
Nice! The fluidic employment of a game developer. I know this phenomenon too well. Senior Designer implies a long history in games. Can you give a list of some of the previous titles you’ve worked on?
“Sure, currently I’m working on Armored Warfare at Obsidian. Before that, I was at Sledgehammer Games working on Call of Duty Advanced Warfare. My previous titles before that were, Lost Planet 3, Yar’s Revenge the reboot, and then many various iOS games.”
Nice, that Yar’s Revenge reboot was something to see.
“Alright! A fan! It was a long road getting that one out the door, but the ones who were a huge part of getting that game done all know who they are and they indeed have my respect forever.”
“I think a great designer can be effective working on any of the platforms, and can carry over a lot of their previous experiences from platform to platform.”
I remember being a bit jealous that I was not able to work on that game. When I was at Backbone, we prided ourselves on creating reboots of older properties. So, you’ve worked on a few different platforms. From console to PC and even mobile. Some might say the design sensibilities vary between them all, what do you think?
“I think a great designer can be effective working on any of the platforms, and can carry over a lot of their previous experiences from platform to platform. The problem I see the most is people not respecting the platform’s own identity while making or porting games over. Many people think they can just drop a game that was successful on console into a mobile marketplace and do well, or vice versa. They don’t take time to think about how the player interfaces differently between the hardware and leave out opportunities to really make their game work on the platform. IE putting many buttons on a small screen where people’s hands will cover anyway. Easiest way to get me to super hyper combo delete your game. [Smiles] Respect the platform.”
Well said. Of these platforms you’ve worked on, did one interest you more than the others?
“As a designer, and a tinkerer, I believe that I’ll always have the most love for the mobile marketplace. It’s where I got my ‘professional’ start as a designer and due to what the popular expectations are for a complete experience in mobile, I see myself being most interested in delivering there. Mobile game developers have the freedom to take risks, and develop whatever they want it feels like. Some games are just a simple idea or mechanic with polish and they can do well. You don’t see a lot of that originality or risk taking in the console marketplace and you’re kind of already adopting some sort of formula to making your game in those areas. I guess it’s just smaller, so it’s easier and less risky to innovate on your product when so much less is at risk. So I guess for now, mobile is my favorite.”
The lower barrier to game creation is allowing more creators to come to market. Mobile is a great home to test your chops. You mentioned you got your start in mobile. I want to talk about how you got started in the game industry. Where did you grow up?
“Sadly that depends on the year. Pretty much, I was born in Connecticut and lived all over the east coast.”
So, how did you find a game job, living on the east coast? There are a few game companies I know over there.
“After deciding that I did indeed want to be a video game developer, I moved to Orange County California to attend the Art Institute there. I figured, I may as well move to CA where all the game companies are, but at least, since I’ll have a few years of college to get through first, I can learn the area, make friends, and network first. Then, after graduation if I get a job, at least I’ll already have some roots in place and familiarity with the area. It turned out to be a good decision.”
It sounds like you didn’t always want to be a game developer. How did you come to that decision?
“The thing is, I had always been playing video games and making my own paper RPG’s, comic book heroes, and stories, ever since I was a kid. Anytime I found a book on (learn programming, or make games with basic) or something like that, I would buy it and study it. Even in high school, taking AP Computer Science, which was a C++ class. Instead of trying my hardest to learn how to write banking software, I kept asking “how do you add color, how do you add sound, how can I get some graphics going”). I’m sure my teacher had a headache. Fast forward a few years at Penn State… I just wasn’t enjoying myself there anymore. I knew I liked business as well, but I was an entrepreneur, not so much a candidate to work for a fortune 500 company as a Regional Manager overseeing logistics or something like that. I want my own company. So, I stopped going to class, and kept making games, wondering what I should do instead of continuing to waste time not earning a business degree. That’s when I packed up and headed west.”
Brute force learning is a trait many game developers have. One most must keep to remain competitive in the game industry. Did you finish any of those games you were trying to make? Were these mobile games or paper games?
“That’s a great question to ask right now, so yes, I finished nearly all of the games that I started making. But I quickly realized I was often making very small endeavors. I say that because I was designer, programmer, artist, sound designer, QA tester and project manager all rolled into one. With that many hats, my games were quite small. Simple executions of an idea or mechanic with polish. [Smiles] They were mostly pen and paper or computer games. No console or mobile at that early age. Thankfully, I did eventually get Unreal Tournament which came with the Unreal Editor and man, did things change after that.”
UE2 to the rescue! So, you went to the Art Institute in Orange County. Did you finish your degree there? And if so, what was your major?
“Yes, I graduated with a Bachelors of Science – Game Art & Design in 2007.”
Have you found your experience at the Art Institute helpful in your professional career?
“Yes and no, to be completely honest. I loved the people I met and the networking opportunities I had access to being in Orange County, very close to many developers. Hell, I got my first job at Obsidian and that was because I got an opportunity to interview there through my career service advisor at the time. The no being, the way I feel some of the college programs are set up, you will do a lot of ‘general practice’ time before touching the real stuff that you actually want to learn about. IE as a student who wants to be a Level Designer, I also know how to model, animate, rig, light, texture, perspective drawing, foundational drawing, english, math, etc.
I hate to say it, but, it’s just hard to swallow the school forcing you to pass classes that don’t directly relate to your interests. I actually failed my first 2D portfolio review and it set me back financially because I had to pay for another class. I’m coming from the standpoint of a guy who simply wants to design levels and games. Those abilities weren’t even part of the test. [Smiles] Such is life. As a designer now, I do not animate, rig, use mel script, model characters or anything like that, but I sure am still paying for those classes. [Laughs]”
In the early days, a “game school” wasn’t really a thing. I have to believe there was a lot of experimentation to find the right criteria for student who didn’t fit the mold. In a collegiate environment, that can be costly. So, Obsidian was your first job out of school. How did your job search go as you were closing in on graduation? Did you apply at multiple places?
“Yeah, I blame it on wanting to be accredited. They can’t just offer a bachelor’s degree without giving you all the general and foundational study as well. I just wish that wasn’t the case. I could honestly care less about the degree, I wanted the education. As for my first job, yes, they were my first application first job. I was in school when I had the interview, and after graduation I had a job available for me, I think about a month later.”
Fast forwarding to now, you are a Level Designer, about to become a Senior Game Designer. Can you describe what your typical work day is like? I haven’t done level design in a while. So, refresh my memory.
“Well on the project that I’m currently on, I’ve been building a feature level for about 4 months straight. It’s come a long all the way from a paper pitch, to where it is today. So right now, it’s all about iteration and playtesting. First thing I do every day is play the map, even if the last thing I did the day before was play the map. When my energy is the highest and my eyes the freshest, I play the map. I look for things that need to be fixed or adjusted first and get those out of the way while I warm up for the day. After that it’s usually about lunch time. After lunch, I come back and do the heavy lifting. If there is a known feature that I need to push on, or some external department work I need to check in on and get updated these are the hours I do so. Most of my meetings or interaction time falls between 2 to 5pm. As a company, at 5pm we all play the game and give feedback or look for bugs. 5 to 6pm you get another hour to iterate or bug fix what other people may have found before people start to roll out for the day after 6pm.”
What tools are you using to build your level?
Nice, I think you are the first developer I’ve spoken with who is using Crytek. How do you find the program?
“It’s good for making the type of game we are. I think if your game is doing anything outdoors and you’re using Crytek, you’ve made a very wise choice on the art side. (Then again, I’m not a pro artist) but I love what the artists have done with the engine especially for our game. As for designing in that engine, I find myself requesting feature support more often than I have with other engines. Flowgraph has its limits, and sometimes I find things about the engine I believe could have been designed / implemented better.”
Are there any other tools or plugins that you like to use in your daily work?
“Photoshop, and Outlook are tied for second place.”
What trait or skill do you think is most important as a level designer?
“Being a good communicator is paramount in my opinion. Communicating your ideas to your teammates in a way that they can understand your vision and know what they’ll need to do to execute it. Communicating to the player through your designs and decisions (via gameplay). Communicating the rules, boundaries, and hints to the player in a way that doesn’t feel like literal communication.”
“Mike Tyson’s punch out taught me everything I know about communicating and boss fight design, I love that game.”
What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?
“Interestingly enough, starting and shutting down GoPlay Games. It was a team of young and talented developers who came together to make iPhone games. None of us made anything worthy of retiring off of, but we all have springboarded further into our careers. At that time, that’s exactly what we were hoping for I believe. So I’m proud of GoPlay, the little company that made iPhone games.”
That’s amazing. What were some of your favorite titles you created at GoPlay?
“My favorite game to come out of that company was Super Smoothie, it was a match three game with a big twist, pun intended because we used the accelerometer in the iPhone to allow you to manipulate the direction that your fruit would fall. This opened up the strategy element. Fruit could fall left, right, up or down depending on how you were holding the phone. So it required you to look beyond just matching three and thinking of how the fruit would fall ‘down’ afterwards. Great fun!”
Turning the phone around is a wonderful mechanic that seems to have been lost as mobile development has become a bit more mature. What is the thing that got cut during production of any of your game projects that you wish you could have saved?
“[Pauses] I believe that would be the goal beacon design we used in Aero GP. It was an airplane racing game that we made. I remember being uninterested in the design we had at the time which was to have the airplanes hit a pole design for the beacon. This design had a very small profile and controlling an airplane isn’t as precise as you’d think (hell that was some of the challenge of the game). If you missed a pole though, you pretty much lost the race because you had to turn around and try again. I pushed to have a goal zone instead but the team pushed against making a change that late in the game. I get it, fatigue had set in and they wanted to finish, but yea, I still carry that one with me I guess. [Smiles] I still wish we went with the goal zone. Gameplay should have won that one and I should have ponied up a reward or some sort of thank you for the change. That was my fault for not trying harder to reach common ground.”
It’s hard to cut ideas and let them go sometimes. Especially if you feel you really didn’t get the chance to exhaust the possibilities.
“Indeed, but it’s part of life especially in the life of a game developer. You at least need three tools as a designer… Pencil, paper… and scissors. [Smiles]”
After chatting with you it really does seem like you have a soft spot for mobile game development, or at least the exploration of bite sized game ideas. Mobile seemed like a trend that may have faded out, but it is definitely growing and is here to stay. Are there other trends in the game industry that interest you right now?
“I’m really excited about Augmented Reality (AR) gaming. Most people would say Virtual Reality (VR) but I am actually more interested in what we can do with AR. Adding a game layer on top or real life. Virtual reality is awesome in concept but on a root level it’s a screen that’s in front of my face showing me a game world that I can interact with. It’s awesome, it really is, don’t get me wrong. But fundamentally, I feel like I have played games with a screen in front of my face with interesting ways of interfacing with that game already. I’m more excited personally with the idea of being in the real world, with a game layer added onto it.”
I think AR is neat as well. Not sure when it will really take off, but hopefully soon! Last few questions. I like to reflect on my career and think of how to improve my skills and choices. Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently? I definitely would have spent more time in the computer lab.
“Ditto on the computer lab. As a youngster in college it was easy to think, I need to be the best at this school! That is setting the bar way too low! You need to be the best you possibly can be because who knows how good the devs in training outside of your school are.
Second, I would tell myself no matter what sock away at least 10% of your earnings. No matter what! Find a way to make it work. Either earn more money, spend less, or both.”
What is the one game that has influenced you the most?
“Mike Tyson’s punch out taught me everything I know about communicating and boss fight design, I love that game. Still haven’t beat Tyson without cheating.”
No shame in that. Many have yet to beat the champ.
“I will though, trust me. Nintendo and legit copy sitting next to my computer right now! Next time I’m between jobs I’m going HAM.”
How do you like to spend your free time?
“I like to wind down after the day playing Heroes of the Storm or Hearthstone for a while. Competitive gaming is ‘all the rage’ these days and I’m hooked. If not that, I’m either working on my business (gameschoolonline.com) or my podcast (gamedevunchained.com). Either way, I keep busy usually doing something game / development related. When all of that is finished I hit the gym and facebook a little before bed.”
I’ve listened to a few of your podcasts. Good stuff. How do you keep up on the latest trends and industry news? Are there particular websites or Twitter accounts you follow?
“I bounce between Kotaku and Gamasutra. Kotaku usually keeps me informed on what the consumers will likely come across news wise, from day to day and I find Gamasutra feeds my developer interests quite well. They’re the only two sites I visit every day. Often I’ll read a Polygon article but that’s when it gets linked to me by someone else. Those sites and word of mouth from co-workers or colleagues usually keep me covered and in the know.”
Final question. I like to ask all the featured developers this question… How would you describe yourself in one sentence? What is your tagline?
“Hopeless romantic who believes everything that is impossible just hasn’t been done, yet.”
Perfect. Thanks, for your time, Larry!
“Again man, nice to meet you and I’m more than honored to be a part of this. So thank you for extending that opportunity.”
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