Noah Falstein is a game designer and producer who has been in the video game industry since 1980. He was one of the first 10 employees at Lucasfilm Games, DreamWorks Interactive, and The 3DO Company.
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I have loved games all my life, made board games as a kid, started programming computer games in 1975 in college, then professionally since 1980. I was one of the first 10 employees at Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts, The 3DO Company, and Dreamworks Interactive. More recently I focused on Serious Games in education, health, training, and neuroscience, before becoming Google's Chief Game Designer for 4 years. I quit there last month to get back to my first love: making games people love to play, with cutting edge technology, new creative tech niques, and great collaborators.
Some games I've contributed to include the arcade game Sinistar, LucasArts games like their flight simulator line, as well as Graphic Adventures like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones and Fate of Atlantis, The Dig, and the first two Monkey Island Games.
Here's a more complete (but still partial!) list: http://www.mobygames.com/developer/sheet/view/developerId,1657/
Sinistar is one of my all time favorite arcade games.
What was the process you went through to program and test code on old arcade boards?
It was all done in assembly (6809 in the case of Sinistar) and testing was done by the team, we didn't have dedicated playtesters. There was no OS, Williams had a kind of core OS many games used (on Sinistar it was Sam Dicker who did most of that work) but it was pretty primitive and tedious by modern standards. Code merging was done by hand, we actually had 4 people contributing code on the core Sinistar game at the end, and debugging was often complicated by the fact that the games required the work of software, hardware, and mechanical engineers, so sometimes a bug in one group was blamed on another. We had a very tricky one in Sinistar that turned out to be a fault in the specialized hardware created to allow us to devote one part of the screen to the radar/control panel - the code crashed when one particular instruction happened to fall on a specific 8-bit boundary, so one time in 256 it would happen (repeatedly on that particular compiled version) but when you added debugging statements, it pushed it off the boundary and worked fine. That took a LONG time to figure out.
Playing through Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis was one of my defining childhood memories. What was the process of making 3 different middle sections (fists, brains, pair)? Was there any sense of how many people played through each or all 3?
That was my idea, we'd experimented a bit with mixing different play styles in our Last Crusade adventure game, and I wanted to take it further. Hal went along with it, somewhat reluctantly because as project leader it fell on his shoulders to implement all the extra work involved in 3 paths (I think it meant the game was about 2x as hard to make as if it had been one path, not 3x as there was a lot of commonality/reuse of assets). We had fun coming up with ways to appeal to each type of player. I don't have figures for sure, but I'm pretty sure that only a minority of players - I'm thinking 10 or 20% - played through on all 3 paths, but that was mostly anecdotal, we didn't have analytics built into the game as it would now. The intention was not for people to replay so much as for the game to essentially adapt itself to the favored style of the player - but we also knew that completeist players would want to try every variation, and the "Indy Quotient" system was designed specifically for them, to encourage them to keep going. To get all 800 points you needed to play all 3 paths AND several variations and "achievements" that were possible within each.
Interesting side note, that 3 path structure inspired Louis Castle at Westwood to do something similar with his Bladerunner game, and took it several steps further. Brilliant game, I'm looking forward to see what kind of games come out of the current movie sequel to that.
FoA was one of my favourite games as a kid. I still use a quote from the game regularly: "I don't think that will work."
We enjoyed the recurring catchphrases that we stuck into our subsequent games as Easter Eggs. My favorite that I wrote was originally in the Last Crusade game, "I'm selling these fine leather jackets" - that showed up in many subsequent games.
Anything memorable about your time working on the Dig? That was by far my favorite Lucas arts game when I was a kid. It felt so different than the other titles.
Lots! I was the first project leader (of 4) who worked on that, and as such I got to work more closely with Lucas and Spielberg on it than the subsequent ones. But perhaps the most memorable start to a project - we were having our regular "Project Leader Meeting" in the conference room of the Main House at Skywalker ranch when Steve Arnold, the head of our division at the time, announced I'd be the project leader on the game. Very exciting moment for me. A bit later in the meeting we felt the room start to shake - not too unusual, we'd been through many earthquakes in California - but then suddenly it got much stronger, and we started to hear someone scream, and some glass crash to the floor somewhere, and most of us dived under the huge mahogany conference table to ride it out. It was the 1989 Loma Prieta quake, still by far the strongest one I've experienced. Perhaps an omen for the fact that The Dig would go on to take 6 years before it came out, by far the longest of any LucasArts project, and have a fairly troubled existence because of it. Even though Spielberg in particular is a great collaborator on games, I've talked to several friends who have also worked with him, and having him on the project means that everyone wants to put their 2 cents in, which can be extremely difficult to manage. That hurt The Dig I think. The final game barely credited Brian Moriarty (the 2nd leader) even though the story was about 90% from his version. My version was pretty much totally redone, tried to incorporate too much RPG for the comfort of many. I think the story and feel of the final game were very good, but I think the gameplay and puzzle structure were not among the best we did.
What is the absolute worst game you have ever played? What's your favorite dish with chicken in it? Do you play Rocket League?
One question at a time please! Worst game - wow, that's tough, I try to put the really bad ones out of my mind, and I don't waste time on a game if it doesn't interest me (unless I have to play it, sadly that happens a lot). I really can't think of a "worst". Chicken - I really like chicken in many forms, I guess I'd pick grilled on the barbecue with lemon, garlic and herbs. Rocket league - no, sorry!
What is your favorite out of all the games?
Well, the cliche is that it's like picking a favorite of your kids - but the truth is, it depends on what the criteria are. Probably the one I've gotten the most satisfaction from hearing player's comments is Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. But I also have a soft spot for Sinistar, my best-known arcade game work - which was also the first professional game I did that was published.
What do you think to Ron Gilbert's Thimbleweed Park? I saw in your MobyGames credentials that you were a play tester :D
Loving it - I've been very busy job hunting since it came out so besides my early testing, I've only been able to get partway into the game so far, but I think Ron and company did a perfect job of capturing the feel of our old games, while actually upgrading the quality in many ways. It's not so much an authentic 80's game as it is an evocation of our memories of what the games were like - when you actually play an 8 bit game now it can be shocking how primitive the tech feels. I'm eager to finish the game.
I noticed you did some game design on David Fox's Rube Works game, really enjoyed that game and I wondered how you came to working on that?
David was my very first contact at Lucasfilm Games, I talked to him on the phone when I was still at Williams Electronics, where I did Sinistar, and we've been friends for 35 years now! I love collaborating with my old LucasArts friends, have worked on MANY games with Ron Gilbert, David Fox, Hal Barwood. Chip Morningstar and Randy Farmer (who were the chief people behind Habitat, the very first graphic MMO https://frandallfarmer.github.io/neohabitat-doc/docs// and Gary Winnick and I were part of a startup about 6 years ago called Suddenly Social. And Larry Holland who I worked with very closely on all the simulation games I worked on at LucasArts has also been a frequent collaborator in my freelance days. David approached me when he was working on Rube Works and I was happy to help, although my contribution was very modest.
Do you think Fate of Atlantis can be made into a movie? Do you think these point and click adventure will make a comeback?
Can be - sure! Will be - very unlikely. Steven Spielberg enjoyed it - he is a hard-core game player, I have a lot of stories of seeing how dedicated to games he is - but he has plenty of ideas of his own about Indiana Jones, as does George. I got to brainstorm with the two of them together when I was the first project leader on The Dig, and really respect their depth of knowledge and their creativity, so I don't think it will be chosen as a movie plot, unless at some future point there is perhaps an animated series like George has done with Star Wars, giving them the option to explore many different stories.
As to point-and-click, it's already made something of a comeback, I'm amazed at how many new games are being made in the genre. I'll put in a plug for an indie game called Agatha Knife, from a Spanish studio called Mango Protocol. I saw it at a conference in Barcelona last year and it's just been released, very biting satire and funny, although it takes a lot of swipes at organized religion and has a pretty (charmingly) horrifying premise. I'm excited to see how the genre has stayed alive and in recent years, grown quite a bit. But it will never be as central as it was in the late 80's/early 90's.
Thanks for the reply! Monkey Island 2 is one of my favorites as well, although I'd have to say my absolutely favorite is Sam and Max Hit the Road.
Are you aware that Steve Purcell, who created the Sam and Max comics and inspired us to make games around them, is now at Pixar?
Mata Hari is one of my favourite 'modern' adventure games, and one of my favourite games that you've worked on. How did it come about and what was it good to work with Hal Barwood again?
Glad you liked it! That one came about as a request from the publisher. They approached me, and I thought it was the kind of thing Hal would be interested in. At the time we were living about a 10 minute drive apart, and both available for freelance work. The theme of Mata Hari was actually a bit tough, not what we might have chosen on our own, but the historical references and spy work were close to our Indiana Jones experience, and we had a lot of fun on it. We got several trips to Germany as a result too, to the developer's offices in Hannover mostly, but also to meet the publisher in Hamburg, and to show it off at Gamescomm, the big German games show. German fans are, per capita, the biggest fans of the old LucasArts adventures, so that was a fantastic experience. (To support that claim before anyone protests, we sold 10x copies per capita of Monkey Island 2 in Germany than we did in the US)
What were the challenges of working on a 4th Indiana Jones story when there were already episodes/stories in existence? Was it difficult to come up with something new & fresh while still keeping within the general feel of an Indiana Jones story?
No, it was a pleasure. We had lots of ideas - had narrowed it down to the one we chose, and one about a quest to find Excalibur, but rejected that one because it wouldn't have easily given Jones a reason to go anywhere but England, while Atlantis gave us a lot more interesting options. Game developers always have many more ideas than time and resources to implement them.
do you think games are any more violent today than they were in the 80's?
Hard to say - objectively, probably so, but I think that's mostly a result of the power of the platforms and the graphics. If you look at books, movies, even opera, themes of live and death - and violence - have always been popular, although with games as with other media the violent ones are minority of the total.
was there a particular reason for you not working on Indiana Jones & the Infernal Machine? :)
I wasn't at LucasArts by then! I was working at The 3DO company on their game console (first one using a CD drive as standard).
Do you have any game that you played for over 100 hours? If yes, which one is it? If not, what is your favourite game (not your own)?
Hah, I have a long list. Several of the Civilization games, certainly the original. The game I use for workouts is Advance Wars, Days of Ruin - the counter on that maxes out at 999 hours and I'm sure I've done at least 3000 hours by now, mostly on a recumbent bike. Also I got hooked on both Candy Crush and Candy Crush Soda Saga (which has excellent level design) and played over 500 levels of each. I don't play many games that much, but when I find one that hits me the right way, it can be hard to stop.
How was it to be a part in the beginning eras of gaming?
Great! I began making computer games in college in 1975, purely for my own satisfaction, but realized I could apply it to my degree (I went to Hampshire College where they let you design your own curriculum) and used games to show off the programming, physics, and astronomy expertise I was gaining. Never thought at the time that it was preparation for a career, except as a programmer doing boring stuff (I did a lot of business programming during my college summers to make cash, and figured that might be my career, but wasn't too enthusiastic about it). But as soon as I graduated I got lucky and got right into the games industry, and never looked back. Certainly being part of the birth of Lucasfilm Games/LucasArts was an early highlight that I will always treasure. I realize now we were very lucky, those of us who started in the 70's and early 80's, because we got to figure out the rules and learn on our own, with no one telling us what to do - we made a lot of mistakes, but there was a freedom and freshness that I miss today. But at the time, particularly when I took my first job at Milton Bradley, people were telling me that I should be wary of "this video game thing" and that it might be a fad that would blow over. I believed them, but it made me even more determined to enjoy it while I could. I don't think it's a fad any more...
One game you wish you could redesign?
Interesting question - with all of my games I usually know even before they are shipped of several things I would have like to have done differently, but didn't have the time. I think that's very common among designers, we're always tinkering and if you indulge the urge to change everything, you end up with one of those disasters that goes on for years and never comes out. Like - no, I won't be catty. I think that with hindsight, I would have made the most changes to Koronis Rift, the first game I did at LucasArts. Looking back, I made many mistakes that a rookie designer tends to make, chief among them trying to do too much, and also putting too much effort into parts of the game that weren't enhancing gameplay. In some ways that was one of the very first FPS games, and I think I could have made it a lot more exciting if I'd made it less strategic.
What prompted you to leave Google, and how was your experience with working there?
I've summarized my reasons for leaving here:
Bottom line is, I joined there to work on really big game projects but the VP who wanted to do that left the company shortly after I was hired, and I never got to do the kind of game design work I'd come there to do.
But I have to say, Google is a fantastic company. I very much enjoyed working there for a long list of reasons. Lots of incredibly smart and talented colleagues, very interesting challenges, amazing benefits (I still miss the food... yeah, kind of shallow that way) and it was reassuring to feel that they were supporting me when I traveled, I saw about 15 of the offices around the world and never tired of exploring new ones. I highly recommend it as a place to go, and if you're a 20-something hot coder, it's probably the best place in the world to work on many accounts.
I got into gamedev because I wanted to help make other people as happy as the games of my youth did for me. I chose FLOSS (Free Libre Open Source Software) development though because I feel the world shouldn't have to make a company rich just to enjoy a game, and that the industry itself can do better for everyone if they share the same entry-level resources.
What do you think about the future of FLOSS games? Do you think it will remain a predominately pay-to-play industry?
I'm not familiar with it. But I'm excited at how many free or inexpensive tools and engines there are these days, and it's MUCH easier for someone to make and publish a game now than it was when I started. Digital distribution, for all of its annoyances, has greatly opened up that process and made it possible for even odd little fringe projects to go very big (Minecraft, Flappy Bird, etc.)
Do you think Serious Games have a real potential?
Which ones can you recommend because they are fun and bring a learning effect?
Asking because I´m studying social work in Germany and this semester I started learning about digital media and social work
Absolutely! I'm very possibly going to work on neuroscience-based games as my next job, still talking to potential employers on that. I think the overlap of medical diagnosis, treatment, and training of professionals with games is going to be a huge field, growing a lot in the next few years. But I also have worked on, and believe in the promise of games for education and corporate training, games that help people empathize with others and change the world for the better, and games that help people learn how to solve major problems in the world - there are thousands of examples out there, but we're still in early stages. I've spoken at quite a few Serious Game conferences, including some in Germany, and I expect Germany is a good place to be doing that kind of work, although it's growing all over the world.
Did you do the voices for Sinistar?
Hah! No, one of William's programmers, with the unlikely name of Python Anghelo, found a radio announcer, John Doremus (may not have spelled that right) who did it. All of it except the roar, there was a hysterically funny audio tape of Doremus trying to roar and sounding like a strangled duck. Python blended the roar of a lion with some audio effects for the one in the game. But Doremus had a great deep voice, much better than anything I could have done. On a game I did at Dreamworks, "Chaos Island" we got the cast of The Lost World to do all the voiceovers, and it was absolutely amazing to see all the range that they could manage. The recording session for Jeff Goldblum in particular floored me, the director would ask for some strange nuance, "Can you say that sentence starting out nervous and uncertain, and finish it showing determination, with a touch of fear?" and he'd hit it perfectly - then they'd do 5 more variations, each one different. Work with professionals if you can! Voice acting is also much cheaper than hiring an actor for a video shoot. Another Dreamworks game used the guys who did Pinky and the Brain, they were also frighteningly talented.
What would you say is an often overlooked aspect of game development by most people?
Hmm, I'll answer that from the viewpoint of developing games, not playing them, I think that's what you're after but correct me if I'm wrong. Writers (if the game involves writing/story) often are short-changed, with professional writers only brought in mid-way or later in the game, when the best story games have good writers on board from the first day. Musicians also feel overlooked, but unless it's a music-oriented game I don't think they have as good a case.
What changed in LucasArts that caused them to move from being super creative to crumbling?
Hard for me to say, it was doing fine when I left! :-) But seriously, I think the thing that hurt them the most was the constant stream of new presidents - it became almost a joke, 2-4 years and there would be a new one, often determined to show his (all men) determination to do things differently than the last. I think if they'd stuck with one or two of the best and let them find their way, they'd have done better. But running a company is hard, and the magic of the creative team we had when I was there was part accident, part luck, part design, very hard to recreate. I also think that some of the people they brought in (particularly when they promoted the lead accountant to run the group) hurt the team by focusing on quick profits over creativity.
I know it's never about the Benji's but how well was an old school game maker remunerated back in the day?
Mostly with free movie screenings!
I think we were paid fairly well at LucasArts, there were constant plans for a bonus plan when I was there, finally implemented basically as I was leaving the company, but I don't think it ever paid off in a huge way for people. Overall the games industry has a history of taking advantage of the fact that people really want to work on games even if they're paid poorly. My best break in my early days came from my time at 3DO - we had stock options that we couldn't exercise for, I think, 18 months after IPO, but I was laid off with many others not long after the launch of the platform "because we don't need as much internal game development now that we have so many 3rd party devs", and I was released from that restriction and able to sell my shares for over 4x what the people who stayed in the company could do when they became eligble, so I have to thank them for that, although it was devastating at the time. It didn't make me rich - very few game developers get rich - but it was enough for a down payment for a house in California at the time which I very much appreciated. Overall in the 80's game programmers were aware we could probably significantly increase our salaries by switching to a less exciting programming job, but I never was tempted.
Why did you make Sinistar so goddamned hard?
Money! The game was significantly easier up to about 6 weeks before release, but it was averaging about 3.5 minutes of play per quarter, and we needed to get it down to about 2 minutes in order to optimize earnings. We didn't want to make the first level too hard or no one would come back, so unfortunately we had to goose up the difficulty of level 2 a lot, more than we wanted for fun, but the earnings were critical. The "legend" is that RJ Mical still has a set of the ROMs of the easier build lost in his garage somewhere, but I'm dubious about that.
What's your fave 90's PC game?
Tough call. Ruling out games I worked on myself, I guess the first one that comes to mind is Star Control 2, I loved that game. Very creative, and a great blend of story and gameplay.
What did you think of Sierra's games?
Liked some parts of them, particularly Jane Jensen's ones. Not a fan overall, we had some serious rivalry going.
Me too! I know we all have to eat, but as you made clear, a game studio no longer needs millions of dollars in profit to make a game - it can be done by a small team of professionals without overhead, income strictly from donations (ala Patreon) or even by building an in-game economy.
Have you ever worked on a game pro-bono?
A few - I've done work on friend's games for nothing, or maybe for a free copy of the game. I didn't get paid for testing Thimbleweed Park, and I was a backer on the Kickstarter so I guess technically I paid them to work on it!
What's your favorite adventure game?
Do you think point and click adventures still have a place in modern gaming?
What could developers do to make them more attractive to a wider audience?
Fav adventure game - probably Monkey Island 2. I didn't have a lot to do with the production, so I didn't get sick of it from having to play it too often. I think Ron, Dave and Tim made an amazing team, and certainly brainstorming with them was incredibly fun, and seeing how the game came out, there were many bits that would make me laugh even after seeing the same joke many times. I still remember one of my favorite points in making the game, where we were talking about how Guybrush could slide down a rope - "What if he used a hook?" "Not funny enough" "How about a rubber chicken?" "Nah, a rubber chicken wouldn't slide, you'd get stuck." Silent thought, and then someone (could have been me, I honestly don't know because several of us can't agree) said, "not if it was a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle" - and we all cracked up.
Modern gaming - see above, I'm happy to see as a genre they're doing pretty well, but I don't think they'll ever be as popular as they used to be.
More attractive - Hal Barwood and I had an idea we toyed with in Mata Hari involving turning dialog and information into physical tokens. I still think we could go much farther - we came up with the idea fairly far into design, and if we designed a game from scratch around it I think it could be amazing - but I doubt it would make them really mainstream. I think they're an acquired taste, and it's like a specific genre, e.g. "mockumentaries" that some people find really enjoyable, but never are breakout hits these days.
Sinistar was awesome! Did you believe at the time that the inclusion of synthesized speech in games would develop into full speech soundtracks or were you of the opinion that it was a passing novelty?
It was too new, we just thought it would be fun to try. Sinistar wasn't the first arcade game to add speech, but it was the first one I think to create a specific character, and with only 7 utterances (see this for a marvelous analysis: http://onastick.net/drew/sinistar/ ) Ken Fedesna, the head of engineering, was responsible for giving us the permission and encouragement to use the speech chip, it had been developed for a pinball game (Black Knight? I don't recall) and he thought it would be a good fit for Sinistar. It definitely is what most people remember from the game.
Whoa whoa whoa
YOU made Fate of Atlantis?
I don't have any questions man, I just wanna say that game is so good, it's my childhood, I had a CD for it, I loved it so much
You're awesome, LucasArts games were godlike
Aw, thanks - I co-designed it, there was a big team and Hal Barwood had the most influence on the game, but as it was the most successful adventure game LucasArts ever did (at least before the recent mobile game remakes, don't have figures on that) and did better than either of the other Indiana Jones games we designed without each other, I think it hit a sweet spot of collaboration, where Hal's writing and cinematic experience blended well with my game design skills. And as with so many things, there was a good dollop of luck and timing, but thank you in any case for the kind words. Incidentally, a bit of trivia - for a long time the working title was Indiana Jones and the Key to Atlantis, but we weren't really satisfied, and I think the manager of the division was particularly adamant that we change it. There were dozens of alternatives thrown around, including some I've forgotten except that they were terrible (and had strong supporters nonetheless). But I think "Fate of Atlantis" was perfect, short but provocative, and with a tinge of foreshadowing since Fate often implies a bittersweet ending. Names are one of the hardest things to do - not kidding, anyone who has worked on a game will concur.
To digress - I remember in particular one 3 hour session doing nothing but hashing out the name for "Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe" - that was actually thrown out as sort of a joke, along with "Hitler's Greatest Hits" which I expect would not have been a wise move. For the record, we had a long talk about the ethics of making a game where you could play the German side, but we thought (and I still believe) that in doing a war game, allowing people to play both sides is important to remind you that there were human beings on both sides of any conflict.
what's the strangest unreleased game you've played, developed, or heard about from colleagues?
That's a hard one. Lots of strange games abandoned partway through over the years - many more than are published. Maybe not strange, but unusual is one that Ron Gilbert proposed that never got made or even started, "I was a Teenage Lobot". You can see the doc here: http://grumpygamer.com/teenage_lobot
Who came up with the Monkey Island interface (pick up, talk to, give)? Why did that more immersive and interactive approach not take off more? I loved it, its humor also is still unique in games. Is there room for comedy in video games?
I think Ron Gilbert was the most influential person on that, it was really his game, and he was the SCUMM system architect and he was very interested in experimenting with the interface. I'm not sure about your question - there were several games made with that same or very similar interface.
Humor definitely is still possible and can be great in games, it's been 10 years now but I still think Portal was a high point in both game play and humor, GlaDOS is an amazing character. But humor is really hard, and interactive humor is an art style that few people have mastered.
What is the Citizen Kane of videogames?
The answer to that is found in the film that is the Tetris of movies.
As a pioneer of the Adventure Game format and point and click adventures, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced when creating these amazing worlds? given the technology you guys had. (Monkey Island universe and Fate of Atlantis innovative world)
Perhaps the hardest thing was coming up with puzzles and situations that were tough to solve, but fair, and lent themselves to solution with an AHA! moment when you kept thinking about them. As Ron has said, "it's all locks and keys" and the trick is learning dozens of ways to disguise that.
Could there ever be a game that is pure character study, without missions or objectives? Like Glengarry Glen Ross: The Game?
Sure, and I'm positive it's been done with some of the indie art games, I'm not a big player of that style of game but I've seen enough to think it must have been done. "Her Story" on mobile games is kind of that, although arguably so.
What's your favorite meme?
I'm a fan of Richard Dawkin's original use of the term, I think it's a bit sad it has come to mean what it does and don't really have a favorite. The original concept is so fresh and powerful, it doesn't deserve to be turned into pictures with text!
What was an innovation in game play you came up with that didn't catch on like you would have thought?
I miss the old game Acrophobia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acrophobia_(game)
I'm surprised it didn't spawn imitators, or not many anyway.
You will have seen the various incarnations of VR and the 3 or 4 times they have been heralded as the next big thing over the last 30 years. Do you think it will ever catch on for real? What challenges in game design do they need to overcome to become more widely accepted?
I think the current wave is for real. I love both games (Virtual Virtual Reality is really fun) and VR storytelling (Check out Spotlight Stories, particularly Pearl and Special Delivery).
Walt Disney, or Jim Henson?
So what's wrong with Sega and Sonic? Why do they easily make terrible games for their most valuable IP?
Sorry, no opinion on that, I never owned a Sega platform and Sonic never appealed to me.
Hi Noah, could you elaborate on your time at Google? I'm particularly interested to hear about your endeavours concerning gaming and neuroscience.
I didn't do much with neuroscience at Google, there are a lot of people interested in it there, but not many who also want to use it in games - perhaps in Deep Mind, but even within Google they're pretty separate and secretive, I visited their offices but didn't get very far in working with them. Most of the neuroscience/game work I did as a freelancer with my company The Inspiracy, notably this game that was never published: http://www.adders.org/news37.htm and this project that has grown into a separate company called Akili:
I'm a computer science major and graduating this year. How do you suggest I get into working for a game company? I've applied to internships with no luck, and I have been making games in my free time already. Here is a link to one I made last semester if curious. https://youtu.be/rKxdbytKNtA
Keep making games, and be persistent. It's a cliche, but that's by far the best way. Persistence is key, keep trying. If you are a programmer I think you'll succeed, don't insist on a job where you get to do the design yourself and you'll get in the door.
was merging code annoying?
Yes. But I was never cut out to be a coder, I enjoyed doing it and in the early 80's it was pretty much the only way to get into making games, I didn't even meet my first full-time game designer until 3 years into my career. I've met many people who are more meticulous than I who are better programmers, I'm not disciplined enough to be a good consistent one.
I don't have a specific question... but the Monkey Island game serious is awesome. What do you remember about working on the game? Concept, development, good, bad...?
My proudest contribution was the concept of Insult Swordfighting, described here:
How do you start a new game? What is your process or workflow?
Different almost every time. It strongly depends on who is originating it/paying for it, there usually are a ton of constraints and requirements. Even when I did the whole thing myself as in my student days I had objectives beyond just making games, like showing off my knowledge of Astronomy (I did a huge APL game in college that I'd love to figure out how to revive some day). But I guess that's the answer, the first thing I do is ask, "what are the constraints?" Is this a game to make money, or show off a piece of technology, or solve a real-world problem? What resources do we have? That sort of thing.
What advice would you give to the parent of a pre-teen, who's absolutely nuts about making games, game-design, programming and playing?
They've a talent and knack (from my v. limited perspective), how do I support, encourage and engage without being pushy? (ie. balance of playing vs. creating).
Any pointers from your experience on the 'making side' gratefully received.
The gateway these days is often Minecraft, I'd recommend that if your child hasn't yet tried it, it's often a way people get started, particularly 10 year old boys it seems. But I'd also recommend checking out one of the several publicly available game making programs that require very little programming expertise, can't recall a particular one at the moment, sorry! But playing stuff your kid makes is a good idea.
Why are film adaptions of video games and game adaptions of films usually mediocre?
What makes a good film often doesn't make a good game, in some ways linear stories like books and films are diametrically opposed to the interactivity in games. Also, many games based on films benefit from the film marketing without trying hard to be fun, it can be a callous way to just make money without making a good game.
Hi Noah, thanks for making time to do this AMA. Now that Google is behind you, what's next?
(Apologies if this question has already been asked!)
I'm planning on another full time job rather than consulting, probably either in the overlap of neuroscience, games, and VR, or perhaps VR storytelling. I'm exploring options for at least the next month or two, several interesting possibilities in the neuroscience area now.
Sinistar kicked a$$!! Was there any way to get past the 3rd level? I've seen people playing old games (Asteroids comes to mind) to the point where they could play indefinitely. Sinistar was a BEAST. I probably paid for your kids college trying (and failing) to survive the 3rd level.
Hah, I didn't ever get a cut of the profits from the game - but I did get my first car with bonus money, so thanks! Sure, I've gotten to level 5, and know many people who have gone higher, but it is of course extremely difficult. See above for why that is.
What technologies are you currently using?
I'm mostly a designer these days, so primarily working in text and diagrams. I like Visio, although didn't use it while I was at Google.
Yes, Minecraft was the gateway, were currently using Unity to participate in online game jams. That's a really good point about playing what's made - I normally advise from a distance, but should be playing too. Thanks!
Unity is a great move, sounds like he or she is going fine. Finding other friends who want to share/collaborate also can help encourage young developers.
How/where did you develop the awesome Sinistar voice? That thing is impressive, especially considering tech constraints
Answered above, it was voiced by this guy:
There is a pretty tiny amount of recorded voice in the game, I think about 20 seconds of unique stuff. There wasn't much to work with.
I grew up playing fate of Atlantis and have almost gotten a tattoo of Sophia's necklace or the oricalcum statue thing. Where did all of the art come from? Also, was there any real strategy involved in the fist fighting? I quickly learned the sucker punch command and ended most fist fights as soon as they started, since I was an impatient kid, but was there more to it? Was I missing out on some sweet mortal kombat-esque fighting sequences?
All of it was created by the artists on the team, inspired by Minoan art and directed in some cases by Hal Barwood. There are some fans that have created versions of the necklace and statue, really quite nice, you can track them down online. I bought a few for myself from someone in Spain who shipped them. A tattoo would be awesome, I know someone with a Sinistar tattoo but not any Fate of Atlantis ones, but I expect they're out there.
And if the constraints are explored - how do you move on from there?
Thanks for your previous answer of course.
Again, tends to vary, but often start by trying to create a super-simple prototype of the core game loop or action, with placeholder graphics, to try to "find the fun and iterate". Not all games fit that model, but it's one of the best if you're making a pure entertainment title.
The excitement of running like hell from Sinistar, spewing bombs but knowing you were 1 or 2 short of taking him out was epic. "Run, coward!!!!"
Thanks for the memories!
Hello, Mr. Falstien!
I did an AMA request last week asking for a game designer/writer, so I wanted to ask: what is it like and what is involved to create a character in your game? I've always been intrigued by the minds behind the characters; why they made the character say the things they say and act the way they act.
Thanks for doing this!
I don't have a specific system for that. When I've done it, I usually start with the game or gameplay and work backward - what kind of character would have the qualities needed for the game? And I use a technique taught by Orson Scott Card, the writer, acknowledging the first few things that come to mind, but push farther into unusual or surprising or quirky alternatives, rejecting the initial cliches. I also like to try to harness my subconscious, think hard about a concept or character, then purposefully distract myself or meditate (or even let myself come to the edge of sleep) and set a reminder (like an alarm) so that I come back to it obliquely.
Hi! I'm very impressed by your career, you designed a lot of very important titles in history (my fav being the two indy games). Could you please tell us a bit about your time at 3do? What was your role here? What games did you design for them?
I was the 9th employee, and for the first 6 months was the entire production department reporting directly to Trip Hawkins. I worked on a bunch of prototypes that were shown at trade shows like CES, and was developing a game about Terraforming called Worldbuilders, Inc. when Trip decided to cut back on internal development. Some of the work I did would now be called evangelism, some of it was helping hire out our internal development group that did games like Twisted. It was interesting trying to figure out how to use a CD-ROM built into a game machine, we debuted a year before the first Playstation and so had to do a lot of groundbreaking work.
Would you rather sell lemonade or cookies?
Cookies. More variety.