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Hazard Team HQ interview with Michael Raymond-Judy
© 2000 Benjamin Boerner.

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Michael Raymond-Judy started working for Raven Software in 1993. He already took part in many projects like Hexen, Take No Prisoners and Heretic II. Also, Michael is some kind of expert in Medieval History and classic pen-an-paper RPGs. But see for yourself, here's the interview! Thanks again, Michael! And now, enjoy:
(This picture was taken from Raven's official website)

<Benjamin Boerner> Please tell us who you are and how you came to Raven Software.
<MRJ> My name is Michael Raymond-Judy, I started working for Raven in June of 1993. I actually came to the job in a way that probably wouldn't work today - the old friend-of-a-friend way. Follow closely, it's confusing :) . Basically, at that time Brian Raffel (our VP) had just retired from teaching to work full-time with the company. The person who replaced Brian in his old teaching job was married to someone who worked with my wife, and word got back through this chain that I was looking for something, anything to make use of my, shall we say, unusual degree in Medieval History. I had never heard of anything like a game company working out of Madison, so I was quite excited. I filled out the interview "test" (designing a hypothetical game outline and a few maps) while sitting in the hospital room waiting for my daughter to be born. A couple of days after that I had a new job, a new baby girl and very little sleep.

<Benjamin Boerner> What's your job at Raven?
<MRJ> I am a Level Designer. Currently I am working on Star Trek Voyager: Elite Force. This has been (and continues to be) one of the most challenging but also most fun projects I have worked on to date.

<Benjamin Boerner> How are levels built? Do you jump right into the level editor or are there other things you do first?
<MRJ> Which editor? The map editor, script editor, model editor or texture shader editor :) ? This particular job (Level Designer) has changed I think more than any other (programmer or artist) since I started, although I admit the differences for the artists between creating flat textures and sprites with only 8 rotations and what they have to do now is pretty extreme too. Still, when I first started, making a level was basically drawing a sketch of the major features of the map, choosing floor and ceiling tile sets, wall textures and then placing them on a square grid in some aesthetically pleasing fashion, then slapping some monsters in. Since then it has gone (rather quickly) through the Doom-style sector-based maps (I still remember first-row and fisrt-col, brrrr) which I could crank out in a day, to similar maps with limited scripting a la Hexen, to the true 3d Quake-style engines. This last was probably the biggest jump for me personally, since it meant a complete shift in how you viewed the world and made things. Finally we have added very complex scripting (which has pretty much evolved into a somewhat simpler form of programming), so that when you talk about "designing" a level you are talking about conceptualization, planning (a lengthy process in itself), diagramming, building 3-d architecture, placing objects and entities, scripting all the possible interactions (as needed) for those objects, and texturing and lighting the whole thing. I'd personally compare it to the difference between making a simple paper airplane and building a scale model replica of the Titanic, that works! Unfortunately, like the Titanic, sometimes it crashes, too...

<Benjamin Boerner> What do you like more: Building your own fantasy levels or recreating a part of Voyager and other "realistic" alien ships? Do you enjoy working with Paramount?
<MRJ> Hey, that's three questions! Ok, first I would have to say that usually I enjoy making my own levels more, although it does help to have some limiting structure first. A prime example would be the areas of ships which we know the general look and feel of (Borg, Klingon Federation etc.) but which we can design to fit the needs of what we want to do in those maps. This gives us clear working standards (it's amazing how quick people are to point out "Hey, that's not how it should look" when you do something wrong) but also leaves us flexibility to layout puzzles and encounters more to suit our own desires.

Designing to fit a known area has some of these benefits, but a lot more restriction. On the plus side, you know exactly how it should look. On the minus side, everyone else does too! This means you really can't change or add anything without running into problems. We've fudged that in some places (it's hard to tell if that L-Cars panel looks right when there's been a plasma explosion and a metal beam is sticking out of it) but for the most part we have stayed true to the show. We have had to change scale on some things to allow the player to actually move around in some tight areas, but the look and feel is authentic.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is design to something completely made-up. While this gives you total freedom, it takes a LOT of work to make that freedom feel right, and not just made up randomly. If you look at the maps we did for Heretic II I think you see this best. We completely designed each culture including architecture, creatures and environment, then built using these as guides. It was a lot more work, but I think we made some really cool areas that just would not have fit anywhere else.

As for Paramount, I can say that I have worked with a LOT of different companies, as producers, developers etc., and so far Paramount has been the best. While they have been (rightly so) picky about what does and does not fit into the Star Trek world, and have sometimes asked us to modify things which did not look right to them, they have also been very generous in providing us direct access to the materials we need to make it look right, and flexible in allowing us to create the new materials we needed which didn't already exist (e.g. the Hazard Team areas). You can't really ask more than that.

<Benjamin Boerner> Do you like working with the Q3 engine? Is it now easier to build better levels with great effects?
<MRJ> The Q3 engine is very nice, partly because I am already familiar with the whole Quake-based editors and engines, but also because it does allow a lot more in the way of functionality and content (i.e. bigger and more complex architecture) and also simply because it has a lot of features that were missing from earlier versions. Most of these are probably never going to be noticed except by map-makers (texture fit, better lighting control, integrating with scripting etc. etc.), but it does make it possible to do much more complicated things in about the same time it took just to crank out a map. Also the ability to separate things like scripts and maps means we can build the map, then change the scripts without having to re-BSP every time...

<Benjamin Boerner> What FPS currently has the best level design in your opinion?
<MRJ> Well that is an awkward question, of course, because to be fair I should disallow myself from naming SOF, which I know to have excellent level design, but then I'm probably biased because I see what went into them. I also can't say much about Q3 or UT because, frankly, I think it's really hard to judge a game which has only multi-player. I think so many times the basis for judging multi-player maps depends entirely on how well-balanced the game is, and since Q3 and UT are both very good games, they could have really just good maps and it would still be fun, while I think some games with bad game-play have had maps I really liked as maps. So, that little quibble aside, I'd say that right now I still rate SOF the best for single play (I'm sorry, Half-Life was cool but not very polished in my opinion), and Q3 and UT are about tied for me in multi-player.

<Benjamin Boerner> What types of scenarios will be in the game? I read there's a level where the warp core is going to collapse and the player has to shut it down? If so, what's the level like then? Do corridors collapse?
<MRJ> Well, I don't want to give away everything in the game, but I can say that yes in some places there will be collapsing corridors, explosions, something to do with the warp core, and more. Also we have several very different environments, each of which we have tried to give very different feels not only in appearance but in what types of things you do there, the amount and style of combat (which is to say do you stand and fight or run and hide) etc.. We also try to make sure the story line and character interaction ensure that the player feels as much as possible that not only are they in a game based on Voyager, but that they feel almost like they are in an episode as well.

<Benjamin Boerner> Did you ever want to throw your computer out of the window because of problems you had building a level? ;o)
<MRJ> Well, my windows don't open (at least I have some) so that would not work too well. I have broken a keyboard or two in the past though...

<Benjamin Boerner> What aspects are important to you when you build a level?
<MRJ> I think the most important thing in building a level is that it feels "natural" when you move through it. Although many times we are forced to restrict the player or "guide" them through certain areas, the more we can make this feel like something they should do or want to do, the more natural it feels. In addition, we try not to have something in a level just because "it's cool". If it doesn't add to the immersion of the player in the game, then it's probably not needed. Other than that, I'd say making the game as fun as possible. In fact this aspect is too often ignored, and games which are more "real" feeling are just not fun. Likewise, some of the most unrealistic games (Doom is a prime example) are just plain fun regardless.

<Benjamin Boerner> Since Q3 only has DM maps, can you say anything about the size of the levels in Elite Force?
<MRJ> Well, many of the single player maps will be substantially larger, since we are not planning on having upwards of 32 high-polygon characters with full animations on the screen at once, and we can replace each character with both architecture and NPCs provided they are not all on the screen at once. And since one of the objectives of MP maps is to keep people as close together as possible, the very nature of the play calls for more restrictive, smaller-area maps. I imagine many of our MP maps will be the same.

<Benjamin Boerner> Is there anything you would like to say / add / mention?
<MRJ> The only thing I can think of is that I'd like everyone who is following the progress of this game to know that, as far as is humanly possible, every single tiny particle of the Star Trek universe that we can justify putting into this game will to into it. This includes not only places and characters, but also the look and feel of what Trek is about: exploration, self-discovery, interaction with alien settings and peoples, and working as a team to solve problems. Admittedly, there's a bit more of the "shoot first ask questions later" play in some areas than you typically find in most episodes, but then we have really worked hard so that you feel it fits the story instead of just having the story as a thin excuse to kill things. And if we do have to cut something out, please understand that it's not because we necessarily want to or didn't think of it, it's more likely that it didn't add to the story, or was just not technically feasible. I could probably come up with 47 other things I just didn't think to say, but then you can always ask me on the message boards!

Please feel free to send questions and comments to bebo@hazardteam.de

Hazard Team HQ would like to thank:
  • Michael Raymond-Judy, for answering all the questions (And REALLY fast!).
    Thank you Michael!
  • Brian Pelletier and Activision, for giving their okay to post this interview.
    Thank you guys!
This interview was made in April 2000.
© 2000 Benjamin Boerner


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