Rick Donnelly is a former punter in the National Football League. He played for the Atlanta Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks. He was an All-Pro in 1987 and 1988. He led the NFL in punts in 1988 with 98.
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Hi Reddit! I'm Rick Donnelly, game designer. For nearly two decades I've developed games with several famous franchises, at companies like Strategic Simulations, Westwood Studios, Electronic Arts, and Petroglyph Games. Here are some of the games I've helped launch:
I'm here to rampart about my new game Airship Asunder, a steampunk airship colonization adventure, on Steam this Thursday July 21st!
Curious about games, game development, or the game industry? I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Thinking of making an indie game yourself? I made a client/server moddable engine in Gamemaker. Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper! I'm not afraid!
With the emerging popularity of Pokémon Go what do you think this speaks about the games industry?
As we progress, the perceived division between consoles, PCs and mobile devices will shrink rapidly. This means games will adapt their interfaces and methods of delivery to accommodate this newer audience, which has been raised with a phone in hand. VR will play a big part in this as well. At first I think it will harm the industry, similar to how people complain about console games being ported to PC without any form of refinement or advanced control schemes. Later, as the dust settles and handhelds become more powerful, as my television truly becomes my PC, we'll see this argument fade I think.
What was your experience like working with EA ?
Bewildering, due to culture clash and politics. EA acquired Westwood, and merged with the Irvine studio in California (developers of the Generals series of C&C games). I had switched to a production role from design just before Westwood closed, so I was picked up at EA as production. Moving into a culture steeped in politic, with the scarlet letter of being from an acquisition, in a field I was just learning, I'd say it was a bewildering test of my capabilities. I learned a lot in a short time, and I worked too many hours. However, the benefits were tangible.
Did you sneak any fun Easter eggs into Command and Conquer?
I didn't work on the original C&C, but I did design most of the maps for C&C Renegade. I paid homage to the earlier crashed spaceship easter egg by including one in a Nod base later in the game: http://cnc.wikia.com/wiki/Crashed_UFO
What kind of education did you have to get for this sort of work?
How long before you actually got into the business?
How much moving around do you have to do?
What about stress, and how many hours do you usually have to work each week?
I'm really interesting in pursuing something like this myself but maybe more working with artwork for games and such. Do you have any tips or something for someone heading in that career path? :)
When I began there were few college courses related to game design. I am mostly self-taught, but I did take a course on C programming to learn how object oriented code works. Once you learn one language the rest are much easier, they are all very similar. I recommend learning some coding skills: even if you don't program, knowing how an engine works (and its limitations) is critical. Game design, though, is in my blood. I can't explain that, but I can't stop doing it. I like to entertain others.
I didn't even consider the possibility until a friend in the industry told me to apply as a tester. Half a year later I was in the design group. If a project needs people and you prove talent, it won't take you long at all.
I'll be honest, it's a volatile industry as it can be difficult to time the ending of one project with the beginning of another financially. For this reason, many companies lay off a good majority of the workforce when a project completes, and then re-hire when they are finally ready to "ramp up" for the next one. This causes you to move a lot if you aren't retained, so it can be difficult for families.
Stress has a lot to do with how you approach the work. It can catch you off guard, for two reasons. First you are passionate about the work you do, so constant changes to the project can be painful. You have to learn to "kill your children" so to speak, and move on with the team. Sometimes, a game is too ambitious for its budget, and pieces need to be left behind which you hold dear. You have to learn to be Zen about it and focus on the next thing. Second, in an environment where everyone is stressed people can thrive on the adrenaline of it, which has a negative side effect. It used to be a point of pride to boast about "crunching" long hours. As for the hours, even with the best of intentions, sometimes you live at work to get the project done on schedule. The trick is how you approach it: EA at that time was new at handling this concern, causing the "EA Spouse" fallout as you recall. Petroglyph asked the team to put in the effort instead, approaching the concern from a more positive angle. Either way, it was a time investment.
For getting into the industry today as an artist, one great method is making a noteworthy mod of an existing product, a reskin or an environment addon. Many artists get noticed from their mod work. Be sure to have a website with a portfolio of your art, so the curious can easily see more of your work. Don't be afraid to promote yourself - the internet can be your resume.
Heya, Rick. I worked with you on Renegade and Earth and Beyond back in the day.
Have you checked out the Renegade X project? What do you think?
I think Renegade X is astounding. It is really good to see that flame alive. I found it quite nostalgic seeing my old work revamped into a modern engine. I see they even fixed some of the annoying things like the Hand of Nod being shot by rockets across the island map.
What's your favorite game (Video or tabletop) and why?
One game that really resonated with me was Thief 2. You can tell they had a better idea what they were doing in that one. I like when a team has the time to refine their tools, learn what the engine can really do, and build something grand with them. Most of the time in game development, you're making the tools at the same time you are using them to make the game, so it's often a hurried affair as a result.
EDIT: I should add, about the game, it was the first time I felt real "fear" tension in a game, hiding in a corner as a guard walked right by.
I loved C&C Generals Zero Hour. Why did Generals 2 collapse, and would you be interested in just making one on your own time pretty please?
Generals 2 was to being developed by Victory Games, a different studio under EA's wing. The tidal waves of corporate adjustments caused that cancellation, but I have a feeling it had a lot to do with the impending rise of MOBAs.
In your opinion, why the games based on the LOTR universe are so poor both in gameplay and story? I'm not speaking about the Battle for Middle Earth, it was the best of them, but you can not play it anymore...
I think it is because it is difficult to tell a linear story in an environment where you protagonist's actions are controlled, and because it is nearly impossible to live up to the imagination with that universe. It might have something to do with handing the license out like candy though.
What have you seen that people wouldn't believe?
Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion.
Can you believe they are making a sequel?
I once wrote code which crashed, but suddenly worked just fine if I put a //comment line in it. I never did figure out that Borland compiler.
Did you also work on Battle for Middle Earth II? Do you think any RTS games will go mainstream now that Starcraft is "done"? There's a decided lack of them imo.
BFME2 was another team. I think RTS will indeed come back but in a new form, shaped by the heavy influences of MOBAs. I would not be surprised to see more Herzog Zwei type RTS in the future, with you controlling a single unit but influencing others around you. The loose camera is daunting to many new players unfamiliar with RTS or god-games.
Not me personally, no.
I joined SSI as a tester, then proved my design skills when they had an open position.
I recommend checking out GOG for the old school action roleplaying lineup, like Baldur's Gate or especially Planescape Torment. Lots of good mods for that stuff too. Secretly though, I've been torturing myself with SimCity Classic, if you can believe that. I was just studying the way it works.
> I'm here to rampart about my new game Airship Asunder
The curriculum is already impressive itself, but this just killed me ;)
Anyway, Airship Asunder seems to fit my tastes quite well > Wishlisted.
And as this is an IAmA, my question is :
What can you tell me about music choices for videogames ?
I mean, from your POV, how does it goes ? I bet there are several cases and approaches but,
Do you choose someone you trust/value for his work, pitch him the project, and create&review songs as development goes ?
Do you prefer to dwelve into libraries, and pick musics there ?
Anything else I don't think of right now ?
My purpose being, if I felt like making an attempt at creating tracks for the videogames industry, what a realistic approach would be ? (appart from making the tracks, obviously).
Thanks for your time and keep developing awesome games ;)
As a designer working alone in my living room with no budget, and limited free time to work, I needed an audio solution which was easily available. Kevin MacLeod at Incompetech.com has a ton of music available, and his creative commons license is very specific about you being able to use it for any reason. As soon as I make a buck I plan to actually buy rights to the songs, he deserves that. He has no idea this is happening right now. Won't it be a grand surprise if the game takes off?
I recommend doing the same if you want your music to get noticed. Make it available, it is your portfolio. If you want game developers to use it, post in /r/gamedev here on Reddit. Once you have tracks out there, you can refer to the completed works in your resume.
Rick, would it surprise you to find that some of us are still playing multiplayer Renegade?
Drop by for a game. You'll need some game patches. :D
Still going strong, nice! Definitely the best part of that game. Once, playing Planetside, I joined an outfit with a leader who had met her husband playing Renegade multiplayer. That made the world feel small and cozy, for a little while.
1 horse sized chicken, or 100 chicken sized horses?
100 chicken sized horses.
The music of the Command and Conquer series was some of the best ever. Any chance we will hear more from Frank Klepacki on the Airship Asunder soundtrack?
Edit: Also, What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen womp rat?
Frank is off doing his own thing, likely with Petroglyph Games, and is probably too expensive for my non-existent indie development budget.
Do you mean a Mos Eisley womp rat or an Anchorhead womp rat?
I want to make a Ranger for a new Pathfinder session I've got coming up. We're starting lvl.4, Epic Fantasy rules. How would you build it?
Being a hunter can isolate you from the group alot unless your adventure is focused on a monster hunt, so consider a role which works well with other people, like a guide or expedition lead. I would find out what other classes are being played, and lean toward complimenting their skills. Otherwise you're a solo woodsman in a dungeon....
What do you wish you were better at early in your career?
Politics. Turns out a good majority of game design in the industry is very politically driven. You need to be able to speak the language of each type of developer (artists, engineers, audio, production) and in some cases be a political face for the project. I focused too much on the actual construction of games, which was a detriment for my field.
why have you disbabled comments on your launch trailer for the game on youtube?
Advice from TotalBiscuit, as YouTube's audience is random and vitriolic. Is that a word? You should be able to comment on Steam I think.
Top 3 favorite bands?
Actually a tough one. Today I'll go with Bad Company, Caravan Palace, and Skinny Puppy. All over the board, but great music.
What was the hardest balancing issue you've ever faced? What was the ultimate choice in that case?
Asymmetrical class construction, by far. Building completely different sides in a competitive game is difficult to balance. Ultimately, I find the best solution is to first come up with the roles you will need to fill for your side to function, fill those roles with your first impression of units which fill them based on the theme of your team, then immediately switch to finding the counters for your unit on the opposing team. This doesn't take time progression into account much, but is a great starting point: "What stops this monster that I am building, how do you defeat it?"
I miss C&C: Red Alert online, and wish some modern company would steal the general gameplay ideas.
That being said, there were a couple of sections on maps that were highly exploitable to the point of ruining them, like one where you could attack the enemy base without ever leaving your own, by shooting through a gap in the mountains.
But these relatively easy to fix issues were never addressed. Can you give any insight into why?
If you're speaking of Renegade on the island map, I know what you're talking about. Shortly after the launch of this title, the company was acquired by EA, and they closed further projects to focus on their developments in California (Zero Hour). Renegade was on its own after that.
Favorite games reviewer?
The question: "How do you get into the game design industry" is one that is thrown around a ton and I've personally seen it answered to death but the answer is always some wishy-washy, "Build a portfolio and network" answer.
Could you give me a more concrete and realistic answer? Does interning at companies actually work? What do they expect of a new employee? I can't waltz into a companies headquarters with a resume (especially true here in Australia) so how am I supposed to get a job where I want to?
Interning works if there are potential positions you can jockey for. Consider it for growing companies, as they often have the budget to staff up and will hire from within for familiarity (both with the team culture and the project).
To get into the industry outside of cold-calling and resumes I recommend making a mod of an existing title which shows your talents. Many developers started this way. Also, don't be afraid to show your work in progress, like on YouTube and such. That's all part of the resume now, effectively.
If you could go back to when you first started designing games, what would be the most important thing you'd tell yourself?
For the video game industry, it would be learn better social skills because you're going to need them soon. Design on the higher end of the ladder turns into more of a cheerleader type position in many ways, so you have to be a positive influence to keep the team going. I wasn't great at this, being a natural introvert.
Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault! Man, that was probably one of the most interesting games in the series and yet I've never seen a dev discuss it. Can you talk about its development? I loved holding the ant hill at the end!
I have to give a lot of credit to the team, they put the time and effort into making the environment feel right but still having the arcade action needed for an exciting movie feel. At the time, there was a lot of concern about having a game where your entire experience was similar - always shooting rifles from a POV perspective. This is where the airplanes and dogfighting came in. Originally there were plans to make the sequence with you as a gunner the back of a B52 bomber, showing the panels getting blown out as it takes damage. It's always interesting to see what ends up on the cutting room floor.
How is it working on some of the biggest franchises in pop-culture?
Secondary question, do you play D&D and if so, what is your favorite class?
To misquote "Skank" from The Crow, "I feel like a little worm on a big hook." I was a small part of something huge. It is interesting to observe, I entertained millions and yet I am not famous.
Last time I played D&D I was an alcoholic, loud-mouthed Thief with no spine, who was once constable. I specialized in the fast-talking and sleight of hand type of thievery. It was good times.
What are some of your own personal philosophies for video game design that might not be shared by others in the industry?
What do you think are some really well-designed, yet underappreciated games out there that we should all really consider giving a chance?
What are some ways that the industry has changed over the years that might be surprising?
Thanks for your time and your work, you have helped develop a lot of my childhood!
Don't be afraid to try extreme combinations, sometimes the result is amazing. Some day I'll make Dungeon Diner Dash: DungeonKeeper meets, well, you get it. Think outrageously and sometimes it can cause innovation.
Lots of answers to this one. I'm not sure I would give the game itself a chance as the interface is cumbersome at best, but the concept of an online RPG which has a short play session then ends with an event is rarely touched these days: Space Station 13. I like the idea of an mmo-type environment which can be "won" and restarted, it is rare with the linear models we have today.
Buying games online instead of grabbing a box off the shelf isn't that surprising now, but it was when it happened. The addition of a return policy for online games by Steam is quite a surprising move. The proliferation of mobile and its influence on gaming at large will continue to surprise, I think. Pokemon Go is icing on the cake there.
Thanks for the questions, I'm glad I could entertain!
Wos wüst herst?
I sincerely apologize, I'm unfamiliar with that language.
What has been your greatest motivator?
At first it was my passion to get this thing out of my head, it's been in there too long and I just want to play it.
Now it's my wife and child.
What is ACTUALLY the best general in Zero Hour? Or at least, in your opinion? People hate on laser dude, but he's the only one I could fight 7 brutals with.
Do you think some of the funny ass GLA lines would make it in the game today?
I know you weren't part of Red Alert 3, but do they know how stupid it is to put a cap on how many units one can make?
Will definitely check out Airship Assunder. Thank you for giving me an outlet to waste many glorious hours with your existing work!
For Zero Hour, I always enjoyed the Air Force. However, the way the generals are balanced, there are perceived hard counters which make certain combos rough (like infantry vs. air), similar to Advance Wars. This leads people to say "X is the best except against Y" for nearly all of them. I suppose, in a way, that is good balance too.
Dialog is always subject to the current politics. Politics have heavy influence on games, as they are sold internationally. To avoid being banned in China, for example, you cannot have fictional conflict on Chinese territory. It varies for different countries.
Unit caps are often a performance concern. If the game engine cannot handle the type of game you wish to make, something has got to give or you can end up with conflicting desires and a lackluster result.