22 min read

GDC 2001 Interview: Paul Jaquays

Paul Jaquays has been designing levels for id since 1997, but he's been making games (video as well as tabletop) since 1976. Paul discusses the Game Developers Conference, getting along with programmers, and the ongoing PC-versus-console debate.

Even with professional level design, there are some great maps and others that are completely boring? How do you make your map one of the great ones?

The thing to do is to plan out what is going to happen in the map. Think through what events are going to occur, where they're going to occur, why they're going to be exciting. Then try to build as close to your plan - like all good battle plans, they fall apart when they meet the enemy. Plan ahead and think things through.

The mistake I've often made, and it is one of my design flaws, is I'll just build something cool and say, "Oh, I could have something come off of here. That would be cool. And I could have something come off of here." It just kind of grows by itself.

Instead of planning what I want [to happen in] the main flow through, I kind of let it grow by itself. When it just kind of grows by itself, you end up with stuff you don't need. It's hard sometimes to throw that out because it may be the coolest thing that you've built on the map so far, but it doesn't suit the level, or it's irrelevant to game play.

Let's take a hotel lobby shaped like a stop sign. The inner three-quarters is the seating area for a lounge. It is surrounded by four evenly spaced pillars, and is about five feet lower than the outer quarter ring. Leading away to the south is a hallway with a concierge desk in a nook on the left. What would be an example of something that would be irrelevant to gameplay?

Getting rid of all that furniture in the middle, that's something I'd probably want to do. Let's say I was coming back here [to the south], it would probably be irrelevant to play for most games to follow back into where the concierge was. It probably doesn't support the game unless there's something important you need to get back there.

[Often] you find a connection to a space that looks interesting, and you start building off of it, and then you think, "Well, this could go somewhere." or, "This could go back here." And you end up with a very complicated, ornate space that you come back to later and say, "No, my real flow should have been to go down that back hallway to that back stair." So, you throw out all that side stuff.

You've been going to tutorials on level design at the GDC. That's pretty amazing when you're considered one of the top designers in the field.

I just look at it as: there is always something that I can probably learn, even if there's just one little tidbit that I can take away. This is my third GDC, and every time it's been a crapshoot: sometimes I'll get something out of it, sometimes I won't. I'll listen, and pay attention, and be polite, but [sometimes] there's nothing there that I already didn't know, or didn't know how to do better, at least as far as I was concerned. Or, there will be others [where] the main content of the tutorial meant nothing, there was nothing that I could bring out of it, except he was showing his tool. (laughs) That sounds weird. He was showing the tool that he uses to input content into his engine. He made a statement that the artist, or the designer, or the writer should never, ever have to type things in, or run the risk of being able to type in lines of code that were out of syntax. Everything was point and click. I was saying, "We need that." So, I brought it up with another one of our designers and he said, "Yeah, we need that."

Why do you think that would help you out?

Because I'm not a coder, and our scripting is code. If I can remove it to something where I can grab a module, plug in values, change an axis of rotation, give it speed - that's a lot easier for me than having to write out what I want it to do in perfect syntax C++, which I don't know.

Don't the programmers traditionally make a scripting language for you?

This is our scripting language; it's a half step removed from actual regular code. We were talking about this in the level editing tools forum I was just in -- one of the things that programmers need to be forced to do is build content using the tools that they've written. One of the programmers there said he did that, and he went to his level designers and apologized for the tools, and said, "You never should have had to work that way."

How do you think that you can build better communication between the programmers and the designers so that the designers can get better tools?

I've got a feeling that it's going to be just a lot of persistent whining. (laughs) The main problem we have right now is our tool programmer has some very macro things that he has to do to the tool. He has also been the head of our Live Team on finishing up Quake 3 and Team Arena, doing bug fixes and changing the functionality. So, he's been torn between that and the new project and assisting a development team we're helping on another project.

Getting his time is crucial and difficult. I spend a lot of time on online forums helping people, and they'll come up with these great ideas, and things that they say should be fixed in the game. I said, "Well, your chance of getting new functionality is zero, or very close to it. We're focusing on bugs." Everybody wants some [Robert] Duffy time, and we're not all going to get what we want.

Do you find it's actually the hardcore gamers that do most of the communicating?

Hardcore gamers have a different point of view. They're an important market, but they're a comparatively small market. They're also the ones that are likely to be online, to take the time to come and complain, suggest, and occasionally praise.

Are you sick of hearing the comparisons between Quake and Unreal?

Yes. It more has to deal with the "Team Arena should have been free" mantra. We made the original engine, Quake 3, and then we made a commercial add-on for it. But the tendency of publishing companies lately to give away content, whether they have actually produced it or not themselves, has kind of changed the mindset of a lot of the players to, "Well, if he gives it away free, you should too." Ignoring the fact that we're talking about 400 megs of executable content that most people wouldn't be able to download even if it was free.

How important is it for level designers to have interests outside of gaming?

I think that you need to have a life outside of gaming. That's not necessarily true for everyone, but my personal taste is that when I do something for a living, it stops becoming entirely fun. I went through that with roleplaying gaming - it was my hobby in college. When I left college, it became my job - making roleplaying games and illustrating them. It slowly became less fun to actually play the games. When I switched over to doing video games in the early 80's, I lost interest in playing arcade games because that's what I did for a living, and I started playing roleplaying games again. When I switched again to roleplaying games, they weren't fun anymore. So, I think it's very important to have interests outside - something that's your hobby. Doing what you do for a living probably shouldn't be your hobby also. It makes it hard to separate the two.

In terms of inspiration, I imagine that having interests outside of work would lend to creating better levels.

Some people get their inspiration from music. What they hear, they try to put that down into something that people can see, [so people can] get the same type of feeling. I go to art books. Movies, I think everyone draws off of movies.

And sometimes movies appear to draw inspiration from games. We were looking at the Aliens movies recently, and we were looking at some of the surface textures in one of the movies and said, "that came out of Quake 2." That was the same texture we had put in some of our maps in Quake 2. I think Quake 2 came out before that particular movie, I think it was either the third or the fourth [movie], the one on the prison planet, but we were seeing surfaces in it that were exactly like those in our game. The people I work with assured me that the game had come out first.

Do you find that when you travel, you look around you for things that would make great levels?

Well, it's more that I look at surface textures. We vacationed in France about 2 ½ years [ago]. I had a camera with me, and every time I saw something that looked interesting, I photographed the surface. It got to be a joke. We were staying with a French family, and one of their daughters started pointing out interesting things that I could take pictures of for textures.

I assume they made it into the game?

No, because we really haven't done anything entirely relevant to that. I've got a personal project on the go, and I'll go back through those because some of them would be appropriate.

And this is another game?

No. It's for a second map pack for Team Arena. One of the things I did as we were getting ready to ship Quake 3 Team Arena was, I said, "Okay. It would be cool if we had a lot more maps available soon after the project came out that were professional quality." Everyone on the project was pretty tired of it, you know, no one wanted to make maps. So, I went and looked through a lot of maps that had been made by fans - I looked for what looked good, what played good, what I enjoyed, and played well with the artificial intelligence bots. [I] isolated that down to about a double handful of maps, we played sets of them in house, threw out a couple of them, and then I contacted the map authors and asked, "would you be interested in participating in a project where you turned your map into a Team Arena map with my help?"

I eventually brought in AstroCreep, the other moderator on the Quake3World level editing forum and together we went through the maps, made lists of changes and suggestions, worked with the map designers, and we turned their very good Quake 3 capture the flag maps into professional quality Team Arena maps that supported the four new game types. [We] used the new textures, and added new play areas that were needed to make the game work right.

The first one was incredibly well received, and I've got another one in progress. We came up short a map for the pack and the other guy coordinating it with me and I are considering doing an original "realism-based" map for the pack. That's what my photo reference would have gone for, but in the end we chose to work with another mapper. We were considering a third Team Arena fan map pack, one with terrain maps, but neither of us really has the time to put into setting it up and making it happen.

I would imagine that would make great customer loyalty and great enthusiasm.

But again, we didn't release it as a commercial product. We just said, "Okay. This is fan content, they still own it, here it is, and anyone can download it." The benefit is that yes, you could come from the point of view that says, "Yeah, we're kind of exploiting these guys. You know, we're taking their work and popularizing our game with it." But we paid them back by teaching and showing them how they can bring their work up to professional level.

One of the guys was already a professional designer, yet he still picked up a lot of stuff from it. He is actually working on one of the licensed games through EA. So, he got a lot of enjoyment, experience, and learned a few things that he didn't understand.

One of the other designers on the next phase, during the process, ended up getting a job at 2015, another one of our licensees. They're the guys doing Medal of Honor. He got it without having any input from us; he got it on native talent. I've been trying to coach some of the other guys saying, "Okay. If you're interested, I think you could take it to the next level and get work."

I imagine as word of that gets out, you're going to have more people asking you to teach them.

Well, what I've done on that basis is basically said, "Don't call us. We'll call you."

Do you find telling them that works?

Pretty much so. I haven't gotten a lot of pressure from people. I've gotten some pressure from folks who want us to endorse other things. Part of the whole deal is that we approved these maps, but not endorsed them. I had to argue with Todd our CEO about the actual wording of that. But as it was, we approved of for use with [Team Arena] by Id.

I've also gotten pressure from some fans who say: "We like these maps. We think you should approve them." Because what our approval does is to convince server administrators to put those maps into their map rotation, whereas just a fan, even making an excellent map, might not get the time on a rotation because other players aren't aware of it. The bulk of players aren't aware of the maps out there, and that's essentially what this whole approval thing did. It isolated out a handful of maps and said, "These are as if they were id maps. You should have them. You should download them and put them on your machine."

How did you find the time to do this?

There weren't all that many good capture the flag maps out there. There is a hosted site on Planet Quake called ..::LvL, and they have a ranking based on votes given by players for how well they like the map. Plus you can also see the number of downloads for each map. I looked for popular maps. I looked at the first two pages or so of maps - there's about 40 Capture the Flag maps in there that had been ranked. They had a little review: TiggerOn, the guy that ran the site said, "I like these. I don't like these. They play well. They don't [play well]." Then I looked through and said, "Okay, how many people are downloading these? What kind of rating are the players giving them?" I cherry picked the ones I liked. There were a few that just weren't set up right to really play our game well, so I ignored those. There were a few that played well but were visually bad. Those didn't get consideration. I went from there and got down to, like I said, a double handful. I broke it into two packs - the second one is in production [now].

Not all the maps we originally selected for inclusion in the pack made the final pack. I had to cut out several of them along the way. It's much like any mod team where a bunch of guys get together and say, "Let's make a game." Some of them eventually come out, yet with many of them, the talent falls by the wayside because they have real lives like: school, or family; or they're good enough that they get hired by somebody, and they've got to do this for a job, and don't have time to do it for fun.

My big beef with a lot of first person shooters is the linear quality to so many levels. What is your stance on that?

One of the issues that you've got is that you've got a choice between the freedom of allowing people to do what they want to do when they want to do, which pretty much sacrifices dramatic game pacing, or controlling the drama by how you allow them to walk through it.

Which do you prefer?

Having gained some insight from some recent seminars (laughs), what you really need to be able to do is give the player a lot of freedom in an area that resolves several different actions without them having to be done in any particular order, but have it pinch again to where you've got something that's linear. Open that up again so there's more choices you can make that aren't sequential, then close it down again so that he's got to do these other things in order to get past.

If you're doing all that on one level, what would be an interesting way to do it without simply having a locked door [the pinch] that you can't open until you've done all the non linear stuff such as button pushing?

You can put a combat situation that you have to get through. A door is always possible, or maybe you don't even give them a door. They can go all the way through [the level] successfully, and they can just keep going through and ignore all side paths. They haven't broken the game because of that, but they don't have all the benefit that they could have had.

How do you encourage people to explore a level?

You attract their eye. You could go the whole thing of Alice and the White Rabbit, where the White Rabbit hops along and you want to follow after him to see where he went. Or something interesting that glints and catches the eye, something that looks important, and is someplace that you can't reach right now. So there's a goal of, "Okay, the game designer is obviously telegraphing to me that there's a way up to there. He wouldn't lie to me. So, how do I get up there?" Then you start the whole puzzle of trying to figure out the path to the level, and the sequence that gets [you] up to that place that has no obvious way of being reached right now.

Is there a way to make those sorts of goals more interesting than simply having a power up?

That boils down to game content. Power ups are good. The door that obviously works and goes somewhere, you know, the door you want to get through. A monster you have an idea is up there, or an opponent, or someone you need to talk to. There can be some kind of goal other than just something that makes the player stronger - maybe it makes him smarter. It could be the key you need to get, whether it's a physical key, or a button, or some kind of graphical interface that allows you to hack into the computer network.

Have you ever considered combining the fast pace of the Quake games with the character growth and roleplaying aspects of games like Deus Ex?

All the time, but whether I'm allowed to do it or not is something completely different. I think everyone has an idea of a game that they would like to do, but the reality is that unless own your company, you have to work with what your company is planning to do.

Without that restriction, what sort of game would you make?

It would probably be a game that figures out how to [be like] Sid Meier's Pirates. Not necessarily a pirate themed game, maybe a fantasy world or a medieval world, one that had that same openness - being able to do multiple things, follow a career path, but that wasn't forcing you along a line. Maybe something along the lines of a massively multiplayer game. Just that open-ended, constantly making decisions that were enjoyable to make. I could even say that I think it would be fun to make a massively multiplayer online game because I have that whole fantasy roleplaying background.

What are your thoughts on the PC vs. Console war?

I like the open-endedness of the PC, but the PC is still less approachable. To really get a good, hot game machine, it's almost three grand. For a tenth of that, you get a good, hot, top of the line console. But, you're buying into the fact that the console, even with some expanded capability, is never going to be anything more than what it is at the day it ships. It will never have a better graphics card. It will never have a faster processor. It may have more memory. You may be able to download something that will work on a hard disk, so you can get some game variability, but it will never be a more powerful machine.

So when people say that PCs are dead?

They're wishing.

What are your thoughts on the wars between the various consoles?

It will end up being a shake out. The last time that you had several high end consoles all out at the same time, it shook out down to one player. I think it was the original PSX that ended up being the one that shook everyone out. When it was the Nintendo, the original Sega, and a few other ones, Nintendo won that one. Then they won it again with Super Nintendo. So, it will shake out where one really succeeds.

With the current crop of boxes, other than Sega already giving up, I don't have enough information about what goes on with them to really make an educated decision, but I have a feeling that Microsoft, at least in the US, will probably do pretty darn good. It's mostly going to be because they're going to be working with people who make games that people in the US understand and like.

Is Quake going to be on each of the consoles?

We've got it on the Dreamcast. We've got Quake 3: Revolution coming out on PS2 supposedly the first of the month [April 1st] from what I've seen of the ship dates. I really don't know about the possibilities for an Xbox version. Should we decide to make one, it will probably be someone outside of id doing the development. It's always nice to get a contact from a publisher who says, "We'd really like your game on our box. Can we arrange to have it done?"

How well do you feel that 1st person shooters translate to consoles?

Personally, I don't think they translate as well. My teenage son thinks that first person shooters on a console are just bad and doesn't want to play them that way. But not everyone thinks that way. A kid I met recently only knew us through the consoles games. His school did what they call "job shadowing", where a student spends the day with someone who does what they would like to do for a living. Usually these kids are in 6th or 7th grade I probably shouldn't be mentioning this because then I'll get calls. (laughs) I got an email from this kid's family and they said, "Our son would like to job shadow you for a day for his school project." So I explained, "You understand what type of games we make? They're mature games. Blah. Blah. Blah. Are you still interested?" And they said, "Yes, we're still interested." So, he came and he spent a day with me, but he only knew our games through the Nintendo 64. He was not aware that we made games on a PC. So, he had played the whole game of Quake 2 on the Nintendo 64 with a joystick and it was an acceptable experience for him.

For me, the real immersion in the game, is when you're getting that flowing movement where you're rotating, and moving, and looking all at once. I feel that's hard to do with a cramped controller situation.

Along those lines, the online PC community has been waiting for us to release the Quake III Arena Dreamcast maps for the PC because they're just itching to go and spank console players. We were kind of hoping that they get surprised and perhaps get a little spanking back themselves . Sega recently released the PC versions of those maps. Unfortunately, the Dreamcast version of Quake III Arena was designed to work with version 1.16 of the game. We're currently at version 1.29. I'm not certain home many PC players are willing to backtrack their game to that earlier code version.

How will you overcome the communication barrier between versions if PC games can get upgrades and consoles can't?

From what I understand, consoles with hard drives may well be able to take some upgrades. But I would suspect, that except in the case of very simple games, that most communication may be the consoles and versions of the same game on other consoles talking together and excluding PCs. That would make it a sort of contained universe where all the features were locked down fast at a fixed point in time. The other way may be have the PC versions of the games either not change once the console version is released or, to have a mode of operation that sets or resets gameplay and code at a version level compatible with the console.

What are your plans for the next five years?

Five years is akin to forever in this industry. Five years ago,
I wasn't working in computer games. Five years from now, who knows?
Lately, I've been focusing some of my work time on model-making and find it both challenging and enjoyable. It's mostly simple environment models right now, nothing as complex as characters or monsters. Given the time and opportunity, I could see myself moving more in that direction as my skills develop.



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