Welcome to the fifth Meet the Team interview, this week we’ll be bringing you the designer’s perspective and interviewing Mike Evans. Mike is a designer on Elite: Dangerous and will be familiar to many of you who interact with the Design Decision Forum. We start as always, by asking Mike to introduce himself and tell us about his history working at Frontier:
Hi, I’m Mike Evans your friendly local game designer at Frontier and general DDF support guy. I’ve worked for just over 2 years at Frontier, starting out on Kinect Disneyland Adventures and moving onto a variety of internal projects including a soon to released mobile game, before finding myself on the design team for Elite: Dangerous.How did you get into game design and what advice would you have to anyone else looking to pursue a similar career?
I got my foot in the door of the industry after finishing university and applying for a testing job at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe in Liverpool, as a temp. Fortunately for me my temp contract kept rolling over and over and I worked as a tester for well over a year before I decided to branch out and try for a position I really wanted at nearby studio; Bizarre Creations. Having a great university degree in computer science really helped me land the job (I know, I could have gone into a much more well paid and technical field after university, but I’ve always wanted to work in games) as they were looking for a designer with a good handle on stats and data mining. In addition I had a portfolio of various demos and prototypes I had created in my spare time to demonstrate my passion for video game design. Unfortunately Bizarre Creations were shut down over a year and a half later and I had to move on, which fortunately brought me to Cambridge and Frontier Developments. How does a typical day play out for you?
I think anyone able to produce some sort of portfolio demonstrating their passion for video games, be it design documents, prototypes, code samples, etc. Backed up by a good university degree will be more than capable of landing a job in the industry (providing they’re willing to move around the country first). Getting some experience in QA is also a good way to learn a thing or two about how games development works from the inside which will help prepare you for your future career.
I get in to work in the morning and begin the usual routine of booting up my computer and monitors before grabbing an updated build and kicking off various other tools, whilst the design team and I go and get breakfast. Once I’m back at my desk I usually check out the game to see if it’s stable and playable and to see what new features have been implemented. We have had several people ask whether we have an office with slides and such, like Google...
The rest of the day is less structured as I’m either being whisked away into meetings with David, keeping an eye on the DDF, writing up more design documentation or talking with programmers asking them to implement various changes to the game so we can try something out (I’m sure they love me doing this!).
Finally I usually end up staying behind a little later than most people, discussing with Sandy and the design team the various problems we need to solve, or finishing up some post to the DDF before catching a bus home.
I’m sure with enough additional backer support we can make that happen!What part of the game are you working on right now?
What are the biggest challenges that the design team are currently working through?
I have the glorious (and incredibly hard) task of dealing with the flight model and related ship systems/GUI design for the game. I work very closely with Mark Allen
as he is my go-to guy for getting all my crazy ideas implemented. The design team can then try them out in multiplayer to see if we’ve finally cracked the ‘awesome-dogfights-in-space’ problem we’re dealing with at the moment. In addition to this I’m always reading the DDF and engaging them whenever possible throughout the day.
To be honest I think getting the flight model and various gameplay surrounding it to be as fun as it can be is proving to be extremely difficult, especially when taking the multiplayer aspect of the game into account. Looking at most other space orientated combat games players are usually shooting down tens if not hundreds of enemy NPC ships in quick succession. We want combat to be somewhat more paced and tactical, especially between players; I don’t think anyone would appreciate being blown to pieces in a matter of seconds (as NPCs have to deal with). Unfortunately realism in space flight is a bit of a crutch here and working around it without ruining this aspect of the flight model is the difficult part, but we’re getting closer and closer to solving this as new features come online (thanks Mark!).When you applied to work for Frontier, were you secretly hoping you'd get to work on a new Elite game and is it the largest project you’ve been a part of in your career?
That was pretty much the main reason I accepted the job offer to work on Disneyland Adventures and fortunately for me I was lucky enough to be one of the first designers to get assigned onto ED. In terms of project scale, without a doubt yes it’s the biggest, and I’m sure it’ll remain that way for a long time after.What has it been like working with the Design Decision Forum on the design of the game; obviously it takes up a lot of your time, so have you found it a help or a hindrance?
The DDF has been an incredibly useful tool for us designers when it comes to creating the various systems that the game will run on. However it is not without its faults. It is and has been incredibly taxing having to keep up to date with every post on there and whole days have gone by when I personally have done nothing but engage the DDF community. By whole day I mean the whole day too; out of office hours, on weekends, on the way in and on the way home from work, etc. Anything less and I wouldn’t be able to properly take in what has been said.
I personally would have preferred a more open system where we poll the community every now and then for feedback on tangible or cosmetic things that don’t encroach too much into the design of the actual game, or create huge discussions that are hard to take in. But I can’t fault the feedback we have been getting and there have been some definite improvements in the game as a result of the DDF and I’m sure more to come in future too.
As someone who also spends a lot of time on the forums I see a lot of great ideas coming out of the community, equally you do see quite a few stinkers though! A few people have asked if these more dubious suggestions create much of a talking point in the office and have they helped the development of the game in their own way?
I personally don’t spend too much time keeping up to date with the general forums as the DDF is work enough to keep up to date with, but the suggestions in there are usually pretty grounded. However there have been a few noteworthy posts that have caught the design team’s attention, which have been pretty incredible!Where do you stand on fun vs. realism when designing a game like Elite? It is a topic that seems to divide opinion on the forums quite regularly...
This is a tricky issue to deal with. On the one hand you have fans requesting the most realism possible, stating that through it interesting things will be possible, on the other hand you have fans who insist that providing the game is fun, no one will care about the realism (or potential lack thereof). I for one am trying very hard to keep things as realistic as possible providing the fun factor is already there. If the game isn’t fun to play then I suspect players will stop playing the game before they realise how realistic the whole thing is. Do you get a chance to keep up to date with any of the community projects out there, if so what are your favourites?
If its fun to play first of all then they may begin to question the level of realism provided, but I’m sure they’ll be less inclined to stop playing at that point. Hopefully though we’ll have the right level of realism to ensure we have the fun needed for this to be a good game in the end, but the balance is going to be hard to achieve and is currently in a state of flux concerning things like the flight model.
I listen to LAVERADIO. Mainly in the hope of getting some credit for the effort I put into the DDF, but only Sandy seems to get mentioned in their DDF discussions though. One day maybe!
Outside of Frontier, what are your favourite games and game genres to play?
I’m a huge fan of Rogue-Likes, racing games, simulations like IL-2 and Silent Hunter, and all sorts of indie games in general. I try to keep up to date with everything going on in the indie community as it is a wealth of inspiration for me as a designer.Are you a long-standing fan of science fiction? If so, what are your favourite things in the genre?
I was brought up on sci-fi with my mum being a huge Star Trek fan and my Dad getting me in to space combat games like wing commander back in the day. I’m a fan of all the usual suspects of sci-fi but my favourite books are the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds and one of my most beloved games (the one that pretty much made me and predestined my love for a lot of things) was Star Wing on the SNES (Star Fox for everyone else!).You mentioned earlier that you had made several prototypes for your portfolio. Do you enjoy prototyping ideas or even modding existing games in your spare time?
I’m constantly creating prototypes for various game ideas I have outside of work but since the start of ED and the coming of my first born (both around the same time) I’ve had less and less time to work on my own projects anymore. I am however still actively thinking of things I’d like to make at some point if ever given the chance (I just can’t help it).Let’s bring the conversation back round to Elite, did you ever play the original?
I’m far too young to have played it on the BBC Micro (although I’m sure I would have loved it back then) but I’ve played emulated versions of it, yes.Looking to the future, Is there an element of Elite: Dangerous that you’re personally most excited about?
Personally I’m a massive fan of procedural content generation and can’t wait to see more and more of this being used in the game and how our team of talented artists can utilise the tools to create truly stunning scenery across the galaxy in ED.What role do you think you will be playing most in the final game?
A member of the community wanted to know if they would be able to find any of the Frontier team as NPCs in the final game.
I’m a big fan of perma-death in games and I’m also pretty sure I suggested a form of Ironman mode to Sandy in the first place back in the day, so I’ll be avoiding death as Bounty Hunter or Mercenary in Ironman mode most likely. I may not get far before having to start over each time but I’m sure I’ll become a respected and feared hunter eventually
I’ve been told by Michael Brookes that our names will be used for corporations but who knows what mine will be!To end on, what is your favourite ship from the Elite series?
Cliché I know, but I love the Cobra Mark III from the original Elite. For its simple, but iconic shape.
Thanks to Mike for taking the time to do this interview and to you all for reading it. Our next interview will be with Graphics Programmer Ben Parry, as usual if you have any feedback on this interview or questions you’d like to ask Ben then leave them in the comments!
Thanks again, Ashley