This week on Firefall Live, Frank and JB were joined by Alex Schaeffer, aka DanceCommander, a Content Designer here at Red 5 Studios. Alex talked about how he got into the industry and his work on Firefall before taking a few live TeamSpeak calls. As always, they rounded out the show by showing off some great community content in our Do You Even Art Bro and Caption This segments.
Click here to watch the replay on YouTube.
- We released a small bug fixing patch this week with fixes for some bugs that have been plaguing the community. We still can’t do a full branch which limits what we can patch to the live servers, but we were able to hand-pick a number of fixes for things such as Amazon issues (not all of them, but it’s a start), the missing music, a couple of Kanaloa issues including one that prevented players from being able to roll for loot and one that was causing Kanaloa to fly through the air, and more. If you missed it, check out the full patch notes here.
Frank: So, what does a Content Designer do?
Alex: Well, generally, a Content Designer’s main goal is to design content. Basically whether they’re working on missions or open world events, they’ll plan out how the event will play out: the gameplay, what you’ll fight, and the events that happen inside it. Then we’ll script the encounter and basically put everything together. If we need new assets like models or animations, we’ll work to plug those in.
Frank: What scripting language do we mostly use?
Alex: Mostly it’s Lua. At least all the designers use Lua, I think the programmers use fancier things.
Frank: How did you become a Content Designer?
Alex: I’m pretty new to the game industry as a whole, I’ve only been working here for about a year and a half. Basically as soon as I graduated college with my Computer Science degree, I knew I wanted to get into game industry my whole life, so as I was going through college I was also teaching myself some design with things like Unity and UDK, so after I graduated I kept working with things like that. I took a brief level design course with UDK online, and basically spent half of my day every day applying for jobs out in California. So eventually I found Red 5 and I saw Firefall, and thought the game looked pretty cool. I sent an application for a QA position initially, thinking that was the main way I was going to get into the industry. After they saw my CS degree and the stuff I was working with in UDK, they said “hey why don’t you try applying for a Design position?” and I was like “you can do that?!” So I did, and apparently they liked me.
Frank: That’s awesome. So you didn’t go to a game design school then, you have a regular CS degree and kind of taught yourself design philosophies and practices along the way. Would you recommend that as a way to go for people who want to go on to become a designer?
Alex: Well I think it worked out well for me at any rate. The straight Computer Science degree taught me a lot about programing, scripting, software development cycles, and I think that really helped. I don’t know exactly how game-focused courses and schools would compare, because I didn’t experience it, but I think having the Computer Science background really helped me out.
Frank: For sure. And then in terms of showing off your design prowess in the interview process, you just showed them things that you built in UDK?
Alex: Yup. I also talked about, my senior year in CS, we had small groups that did software engineering projects, and my game made a really simple procedurally generated city with different types of buildings and stuff, so I showed that as well.
Frank: So now that you got into Red 5, and you’re now a designer for a video game, which is awesome, how was it adjusting to the fact that there are a lot of different disciplines of design like content design, level design, systems design, etc, and even in content design you’re really focused in on a single thing. Was that surprising for you, did you think it would be a lot more open coming in?
Alex: I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it’s definitely faster to get going coming in here and having all of these tools available to me. For instance, when working with UDK, I’m no artist but I had to make my own super simple boxy man models and rig them up and that was really complicated because I didn’t have any experience with that kind of stuff. But with this, I could get started pretty much immediately with making missions; giving the players goals and guys that spawn in to shoot.
Frank: What are you specifically focused on here at Red 5?
Alex: When I joined, about at the same time as Christian, John, and Steven, we all started working on the wandering encounters and dynamic content. Since then I’ve worked on other things, like the ARES Job system took up a lot of our time. I also worked on the Wintertide Live Event; the Father Wintertide encounter, Whack-an-Elf, and the snowball fight, I worked on those with Jake. Since then I’ve been working on Operations pretty much exclusively.
Frank: So Miru which came out a little while ago and now Hightide, which is on PTS.
Alex: Yup. Originally, for Miru I worked with a Senior Designer for about half of it and then finished all the scripting for the end of it, and then for Hightide I mostly designed and scripted the whole thing.
Frank: Nice, that has to feel really cool.
Alex: It was a big project, but yeah it feels great having known that I set up this whole Operation, and I’m really excited to work on the next one.
Frank: So when you’re working on something like Hightide or Miru, what other teams or disciplines do you see yourself working with the most?
Alex: Probably the most would be the World Builders and Level Designers for actually getting the area to how we want it to look and fit with whatever our theme is. The World Builders do a great job, there are some really beautiful areas in both Hightide and Miru. Probably the other closest would be Narrative. For Hightide I worked with Emma a lot, working out the storyline, and there was a lot of back and forth between here’s some gameplay and how it can tie into the narrative, and vice-versa. Other than that just the usual things; there were models needed, and animations, and sounds.
Frank: So you typically go to the art department in general, as opposed to each discipline specifically?
Alex: Yeah the Producers don’t like it if we try and go up to an individual person and make them do something.
Frank: What about for a boss? Both of those Operations have bosses, so do you also talk to like the AI people?
Alex: Yup, AI, and the Combat team, and the Creatures team. They all help out with setting up the bosses and the abilities they use.
Frank: So we’re looking at a video of Derek’s block out of Hightide [19:45 on YouTube], is this before or after you start working on it?
Alex: Well this one, the World Builders had some basic design ideas that we brainstormed together, so while I was finishing up Miru they started a really basic rough build of Hightide, which is different than it was with Miru, as that one was being built pretty much at the same time as we were scripting it. So with this one, I don’t think I’d actually started scripting, at least not in the area we’re seeing. But it had all of the elements that we’d discussed in our brainstorming meetings.
Frank: So a lot of different hands touch these Operations, or really any kind of content, before it goes out, just based on process. On a high level, going back to what you were saying about working in UDK, when you’re trying to level design you’re like “oh I need a guy, and you just make a box and you’ve got to rig him, and all that stuff. I can’t do all of that, let me just stick to this,” and that’s really why the studio gets together and does it as a team. I find it fascinating to hear how many teams wind up touching this before it actually goes out. So what about the iterative process, how do you get to iterate on your content; do you do it by yourself or is there like a review process?
Alex: A little bit of both, at separate points. For instance, as I was working on Hightide, I got the absolute bare bones version of the individual encounters set up pretty quickly, like within a couple of weeks, and then at that point we went back and started adding new effects and polishing it up, and making it more than just “oh guys spawn and you kill them and it’s done.” After that, there’ll be a point where other designers will start playing it and they’ll give their feedback, and we’ll iterate based on feedback from within our team, and fix bugs, and things like that.
Frank: How quickly can you iterate on something, and what’s generally your process; do you go into the block out and iterate in there?
Alex: It depends. For instance, for a lot of the content we have a blank nothing map, and for the most part we’ll set up the bare bones of an encounter in there and then move it. If it’s a dynamic piece of content it could spawn anywhere so it doesn’t need to be moved, but in the case of something like Miru which was being built as I was scripting, I’d have it prepared in the nothing map and then once it was ready I could move everything in there. With Hightide, a majority of the whole place was already blocked out and touched by World Builders, so I just started scripting directly in those zones.
Frank: Is it faster to do one over the other?
Alex: On my end, it’s at least marginally faster to do it on the area that’s been blocked out, it just saves the amount of time of copying and pasting stuff.
Frank: That’s interesting because I think that the Combat Designers go a different route. If I’m testing a new weapon, I’m going into “animations paradise” which is basically checkerboard land with some generic BSP blocks like half pipes and stairs so you can test movement and mobility, and because it’s fast to load it’s good for them. Spinning up an Operation takes more like 10 minutes, and spinning up something like Coral Forest, well I’m going to lunch while I wait for it. So it’s interesting to hear that it’s marginally faster for you to iterate directly in the space.
Alex: Yeah, though it’s pretty close.
Frank: What’s the average length of time it takes from day 1 when you sit down and they say “ok we need Operation number seven” or whatever, what’s the typical length before that’s actually released out into the wild.
Alex: Well it really depends on the size and scope of the encounter. A Live Event takes a lot less time than something like an Operation, though of course it depends what kind of Live Event.
Frank: Yeah that’s true, I remember with the Headless Horseman encounter, Christian did that, and I think he did that in May or June of last year, so he worked on it long before it went out.
Alex: Yeah likewise with the Wintertide stuff, I started working on the Father Wintertide event back a couple months after I started back in that December, but then it wasn’t until late December or January that I had a working prototype, so we were like “well maybe we can use this next year.”
Frank: Yeah I get worried when it’s 3 months to a holiday and I haven’t heard a solid plan yet, because I know how long it takes from idea to creation, because that has to get put on the backlog, and put onto people’s task lists, and prioritized, and put into the pipeline.
Alex: Yeah it generally takes months.
Frank: Yeah, it’s a complicated question because it depends on what it is, but it’s typically a while. Even once you’re done with it, I would imagine a lot of times you get done with something and then it gets tucked away while you work on something else, and then when we get ready to push it out you have to come back and do more polish and bug fixing.
Alex: In a perfect world we finish it a few weeks before our timeframe so we have that extra time to focus solely on polish.
Frank: Yeah, in the perfect world. I know a lot of times we wind up going down to the last second before checking it in, and then we have to fix bugs in Stabilization, but that’s kinda how it goes trying to keep up with the demand for content. Now though we’re slowing it down somewhat and working on creating a solid polished product before we put it back out there. What would you say is the most challenging thing you’ve worked on?
Alex: That’s tough. Everything I’ve worked on, especially with the Operations, I try to do things that haven’t been done in such a way before, so that often requires a lot of trial and error. One thing was the rising lava area in Miru, since we’ve never moved water or lava in that kind of setting, so that introduced a lot of new problems.
I’ve got a question about Amazon, which might sound a little bit silly, but what’s with the turtles? I’m expecting one of these days that I’m going to be standing behind one of these things for cover and suddenly it’s going to take my leg off.
- It’s super-secret. It’s actually in the contracts we sign when we get hired that we can’t talk about the Turtles. In fact, we’ve said too much already, crap.
Are the visual changes to places like Copa pretty much set in stone for when the changes come to live, or is that just something you guys are throwing in temporarily to see how it’s accepted?
- That’s pretty much set in stone, though there may be some iteration still happening on it.
I brought this up a few months ago on Firefall Live, regarding a color blind mode, and I was playing on PTS and realized that the colors for tagging enemies have changed, and it’s actually even harder for me to see enemies on PTS.
- That is a great thing for us to know, we’re making a note to talk to Lukasz about it right after the show. He’s a big proponent of supporting colorblindness, so that’s definitely something he’ll want to know. Thank you for the heads up.
Someone mentioned there being a second path in Operation Hightide, but none of us have seen it yet, what’s up with that?
- It’s time based, basically you have to complete the first part in a certain amount of time and then a new path will open up to you. We’ve done some work internally since the build that’s on PTS to make it more obvious what you need to do to get on that path.
Do You Even Art Bro
He just gave her the news... The next event features kittens.
I still say we should add a Taco Bell in game.
And then we actually put SURF Boards in and people laughed at us, so we took them away. Now we have no new events planned.
So that's when I put peanut butter in this Solo cup, thinking I could survive the Melding with large quantities of it in my system. Ultimately, I took the Dr. Pepper instead.
Remember 5 minutes from now when I ask you for those reports I needed on my desk 2 days ago? Yes that's how far behind schedule we are.
And then, after they defeat the Chosen Mothership, Brody comes to face them as the Penultimate boss. It was the Accord all along!
Look, I have told you 100 times: no fuzzy bunnies in game!
With all this talk about crunch, I figured I'd bring in my favorite peanut butter! Why are you looking at me like that? Why is everyone else avoiding eye contact?
That's all for this week! Make sure to tune in again next Friday for another exciting episode of Firefall Live!
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