Hey everyone! Today’s article is another interview, but this time with a game developer I had the pleasure of meeting via Twitter. His name is Alex and he’s a level design/world artist that used to work for Ubisoft. Take a look as we talk about Alex’s experience, and get a glimpse into the world of a game developer!
C: What console/game sparked your love of video games?
A: The NES was my first personal console because the Atari was the family machine. I was hooked before that though because of the arcades.
C: Which franchise is your favorite of all time and why?
A: As a series, it is Zelda, because of the wonder and discovery that are made through the dungeons and such. It really was exciting every time to figure out a dungeon and its layout. As a solo game though my favorite game of all time is Jet Set Radio Future. The music, the graphics, and the gameplay are all top-tier, BUT it was the level design that took it to the next level for me and everything in that game came off perfect because the world truly felt like a place that demanded to be traversed.
C: What made you want to become a game developer?
A: I didn’t want to be in game development at all, I went into social and urban geography and ended up using my knowledge of urban environments on level design for Ubisoft
C: In what ways were you able to do this? Tell us how that works, exactly?
A: Having knowledge about urban environments helped with The Division and Assassin’s Creed series’ level design. Being able to mimic real-world or historical urban sprawl, so the player very much feels a realistic aspect of the environment.
C: I know that game development on any level, whether it be AAA or indie, can be excruciatingly hard. How do you deal with the everyday pressures that come with it?
A: I am very lucky because working in France has let me avoid the burdens of something like crunch. France has amazing workers’ rights, so I never work more than 35 hours a week and have amazing amounts of vacation time. The normal headaches that I encounter are the same within all tech companies it seems, and that of course doesn’t bother me as much. If anything ever gets to me, of course, I can always fall back on my hobby of gaming to unwind and relax after work!
C: I imagine you have to work with international teams as well? If so, what challenges does that pose for you and your team?
A: With Ubisoft, it was challenging because the studios are spread across the world, but really it was no different than any other international tech company, and there were systems in place to make it easy enough to not become detrimental to development cycles.
C: To some that do know you, they know you’ve worked for Ubisoft on various titles. For those that don’t, can you tell us what it was like when you were brought on to join their team? What was that experience like for you?
A: My entry into Ubisoft was 100% by chance. I moved to France for family reasons and spent some time looking for jobs that could help me learn and improve my French. I found Ubisoft, and they were looking for level designers, so I just took the chance and applied. My expertise in using mapping programs that came from satellite telemetry and other data sets caught their eye. The rest is history, and I ended up working on a few of the big entries in Ubisoft’s catalog; Assassin’s Creed, The Division, Steep, and Rider’s Republic.
C: I’m a fan of Assassin’s Creed and one thing that ALWAYS gets me is how intricate and beautiful the worlds are in which the player explores. How does your role play into that in terms of the level design? Do they make you go out into the field and take pictures, notes, etc. and work that into your designs?
A: An example would be with AC Unity, we were able to study old maps of Paris at different epochs. Being able to see the urban sprawl and diaspora over the decades, or even centuries, of Paris and adapting all that knowledge to design a world that convinces the player they are in revolutionary France and yet still makes it fun for the player to traverse (blending reality and fantasy with level design). We were in Paris and taking photos, there was a team that did a complete scan of the entirety of Notre Dame, and other things like this that helped us adapt the real Paris into the game and transform it into the revolutionary times.
C: As gaming grows and evolves, much like Pokémon (I had to throw that in there, don’t judge me), we’re going to see some leaps and bounds in regard to technology and gameplay innovations. What is something you’d like to see? What would you like to see more of?
A: I really do hope we make more strides in VR and help with adoption rates because I am totally into playing games in VR. There is nothing as engrossing, nothing as engaging, as VR. From my side of development, it is hard for me to think about tech that could make my job easier or help with designing because really it does come down to a type of art form and that isn’t as much tech limited as a personal limit…at least that is my feeling for level design.
C: Speaking of games evolving, what is your take on video games being considered an art form?
A: They are 100% art, in every aspect. Only monetization is void of art, though there are lots of amazing creations that can be inside microtransactions (e.g. – cosmetics). An example of evolution in games and as an art form is the Castlevania series. The first few were very linear, with minor backtracking in the second game, and were an excellent game to show early horror themes in games and how level design at the time was simple BUT because of this, it is able to be easily delivered to the player what they need to be doing, their performance, to overcome the game traversal-wise.
As the series went along we had an amazing evolution of level design with Castlevania SOTN (Symphony of The Night). Metroid had the sprawl and traversal before it, but SOTN delivered on a whole other level. SOTN was able to convey the immense size of Dracula’s castle, and the dangers that you would encounter just based on the themes of each section of the castle. Every Castlevania since then is more of the same to the majority of people but I was and still am very surprised by their simple delivery even though you know this map is going to expand in such a way that you will be surprised each time you wrap around or find another way to get from point A to B.
As for my favorite games as far as art goes, I always think about Jet Set Radio Future. Where it is 100% a game all about an over-the-top example of Shinjuku, Tokyo, and the culture that is perfectly represented in the artwork of the characters and the models of the buildings, cars, and objects in the game’s world. This over-the-top representation also extends to the level design and how you can traverse it in the most unrealistically fun ways possible.
C: Is there something that’s mostly known amongst developers such as yourself that you wish the gaming community could know or be understanding of? If so, what is it?
A: We hear and see everything people say, from the worst to the best. My simple recommendation is to throw out the praise, it does help a lot since the majority of the industry is crunching when it comes time to ship a game. Also, stay critical, but truly critical and not pejorative, because it just makes you look like an ass.
C: What’s your dream game to work on and how would you make it stand out if you could?
A: Castlevania; I adore the castle design and layout of Symphony of the Night, and the GBA and DS games as well, and I would die just to be able to work on a 2D Castlevania, or to work with Igarashi on Bloodstained 2
C: You’ve done some amazing work on quite a few games that the overall gaming community enjoys greatly, and continues to do so. With that said, what’s next for you Alex?
A: At the start of this year, 2022, I left Ubisoft, and now it is on to other horizons. I’m apprehensive but excited!
Make sure to show Alex some love and support over on Twitter, his handle is @SinByGames. If you’d like to learn more about other developers or games industry professionals then subscribe asap!