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From BioWare to Cedar Hill Games: A Jack-of-All-Trades Develops
As the owner of a tiny games developer, where tasks as exciting as designing a game rank as necessary as taking out the garbage, I often wonder how I ended up here and how I ever got the nerve to start something so adventurous.
The answer lies, quite simply, in the ten excellent years I spent at BioWare Corp. in Edmonton. Now, I do try not to live in the past (especially since it's been almost five years since I was employed there), but I think a retrospective is justified when I want to communicate how I run my company; and besides, it's good stuff! I have been extremely lucky to have worked there and I want to share that with you.
One of my first tasks when I started in January 7th, 1997 was to assist in the production of the Baldur's Gate intro cinematic. I was hired straight out of school as an animator, as were many of my school-mates from Vancouver, so we were a close-knit bunch; happy to be working on something so epically cool.
I must say, the office back then was new, but at the same time wore the distinct odour of twenty-somethings that were overjoyed to work well into the night or even wee hours of the morning. There was one of those sofas there that had been slept on more than it should have been and proudly wore the stains to prove it. But we were happy to be employed and proud of our work. I still have my t-shirt from that era that proclaimed to the world: "BioWare - We're into anything geeky"
What skills did I develop in this time? Working with a pixel pipeline, but more importantly animation. Do you see keyframes while watching a cat stride?
What did I learn from this experience? Teamwork builds pride in our projects and will bring a company loyalty.
A little-known side piece of information: BioWare's animation department took on some other production jobs at the time. Ever heard of Be Alert Bert? We contracted out our services to produce a portion of the computer graphics for a kids show about safety. If you were, say, to look up Be Alert Bert on a popular internet video streaming site and find a credits sequence, you might, poor video quality permitting, catch a glimpse of the BioWare name and logo animation while a man in a full bee mascot suit performs the Twist in the background. Sadly for you, but happily for us, you won't be able to find our actual work on said site.
My acquired skills: Production speed. Nothing makes you work faster than a television deadline.
My learning experience: take on projects that help you build what you really want to do.
Baldur's Gate is a success, you say? Loved across the world? Little-old-us? Good grief! With expansions and successors to Baldur's Gate underway, I transitioned onto a new and exciting project that took BioWare-built Dungeons and Dragons into 3D. Under the guidance of Trent Oster and the art direction of Mark Holmes I became a level artist prototyping an incredible new game that let the player become a dungeon master.
It wasn't until four years later that Neverwinter Nights would be released, but here I was designing systems for tombs and landscapes while my fresh-faced office room-mate, Casey Hudson (now famed producer of the Mass Effect games), prototyped systems for character creation. Working on something so inspired was positively empowering!
My learning experience: shoot for something original; you won't be remembered for a game that covers common ground.
My acquired skills: Low polygon modelling, working with a 3D pipeline and an appreciation of limitations!
Casey and I were side-tracked for six months or more, asked to make levels for MDK2. Mine was the level you will never have experienced because you would never have progressed past Casey's level in which he asked the player to perform miraculous feats of acrobatics while ascending the outside of a nuclear cooling tower. Thanks Casey. This project demanded a lot of our time, the whole team working late into the night, and it was here that I learned to hate pizza as it was on the dinner menu most days of the week.
My acquired skills: level pre-planning, BSP meshes (OMG BSP), testing, testing, testing.
My learning experience:
1. You have to work hard to finish something of quality.
2. You should always play to your strengths. MDK2 was a great game, but it certainly wasn't a BioWare RPG. People are drawn to sharing experiences with characters in a well-told story.
Casey was selected to produce a new secret project with a fancy intellectual property that involved light sabres and Wookies. Dungeons and Dragons and now Star Wars? I guess we're onto something here. I moved back onto Neverwinter and led the team that put my level prototyping into practice.
I made sure that all the tiles we wanted to create were built in their simplest form and were in the game build ready to be used as early as I could manage. At its peak I had eight people building tiles and level objects, replacing my temporary art with high detail versions. Let me tell you, the first day that I built a level, populated it with NPCs and creatures, loaded it up and had it all work around me was a very rewarding day. I was attacked by a cow and two chickens, though, as I didn't yet understand the faction system.
My acquired skills: Team leadership, asset organization and naming schemes, and an ability to understand the needs and communicate our needs with the programming staff. This last one is a hard skill to learn as an artist, and I’m still learning it.
My learning experience: prototype quickly, fill the game with temporary assets that represent your plan. Do it early. It is essential to project-wide communication and to assist in production. Don't be bashful that it looks incomplete!
After a brief time assisting on cutscenes for Knights of the Old Republic, a small stint on the prototype of Jade Empire and even being Art Director for the prototype of Dragon Age, I moved on to becoming the Art Lead for the new engine project that BioWare was concocting, called Eclipse. Over the years I had made a name for myself as a technical artist and while we had hired artists and scriptors much more technical than myself, I was always interested in making sure that art was produced in the most efficient way possible.
It was a cushy job, I must admit, getting to try out new technologies and oversee the production of tools. I learned about shaders and played with some really innovative ways to create levels. Eventually this technology got rolled into Dragon Age, the teams merged and it was always a little bit disappointing that we never really got to the point with the engine where we could say "Here, this is our finished engine, use it", but it ultimately was the best decision.
My acquired skills: 3DS Max scripting and shader authoring. Pipeline design and implementation. High detail to low detail comparison mapping and normals maps. HDRI theory and lighting styles.
My learning experience: with this particular job there were many. I will give you two:
1. A quality engine cannot be devised independently of a game. Games have specific needs that a generic engine will fail to cover.
2. Documentation is great but generally goes out of date the instant it is written. Similarly, some people do not care to read it, especially when people have such varying skill at technical writing. I would suggest to use a working system or a running engine for communication as soon as you can.
I became the lead level artist for Dragon Age, but at this point I had made the decision that I wanted to try something new, move to beautiful Victoria in British Columbia and let the BioWare saga move onto the next stage without me. It was agreed that I would train a new level lead, which I did over the course of a year at which point I left the company on my 10 year anniversary, January 7th, 2007.
I worked from home for a while as an independent contractor making the dwarven levels of Dragon Age. That was pretty fun as I knew how I wanted it done and I was very familiar with the style. But for someone who is so interested in the running of systems and marking the progress of a project, it was so strange to produce art that you couldn't even see in the engine. Lowly contractors don't often get to see the inner workings of production.
And so, due to the lack of game development studios in Victoria, my inner drive to see the brilliance of teamwork that builds quality gaming experiences and a desire to put my knowledge to good use, I started my own company. Ladies and gentlemen, Cedar Hill Games Inc. is on the rise, so watch out for us.
They say you can’t go back, that you’ll never cross the same river twice, but I can certainly tell you that you can come pretty darn close. The feeling I get by starting something so brilliant from nothing is immense... but I suppose I didn’t start with nothing. I started with ten great years at a magnificent company. Thank you BioWare!
And let me tell you how I put these skills and learning experiences to good use in my next feature, coming soon.