Today’s Inside the Vault is about senior designer, Kurt Kuhlmann. Kurt has worked on a few Elder Scrolls titles including Oblivion. Much of how we implement quests in the Construction Set, especially when we transitioned to Oblivion from Morrowind, was conceived by Kurt. He once made a web version of the board game, Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, after we became addicted to it in the office.
What’s your job at Bethesda?
I’m a Senior Designer.
What other games have you worked on?
I started at Bethesda way back in … 1996 (wow, time flies). I was the most junior designer imaginable, coming in at the end of the Daggerfall death march. An interesting introduction to the game business, to say the least. I did the initial design for Morrowind, when it was originally going to be the immediate sequel to Daggerfall. Then when that project got shelved, I was one of the designers on Redguard. That’s still my favorite project, probably because it was much more of “my baby” than any other game I’ve worked on — it originated in brainstorming sessions between Todd Howard, Michael Kirkbride and myself. Many a Fuddrucker’s burger were consumed while we worked on Redguard… Those were also the days when we were so small that I ended up building several levels in 3D Studio Max, writing dialogue, designing puzzles, scripting — a nice bit of everything, which is still what I prefer when I can get it.
After Redguard I left Bethesda for a while and worked at a company in Colorado called VR-1 than nobody’s ever heard of, because almost nothing we did ever saw the light of day. Then in 2003 Todd lured me back to Bethesda to work on Oblivion. For Oblivion, I was primarily responsible for the main quest. I was also the lead designer on Knights of the Nine.
Sort of to the side of all this, I’ve published two wargames (you know, the kind with a paper map and cardboard counters), one self-published and the other through a wargame publisher.
What is the best part about working as a designer? The worst part?
Best part is certainly the chance to get paid to do something as fun as designing games. I’m still very aware of how lucky I am to be doing something I love. Maybe that isn’t exactly answering the question. I think it’s the collaborative process that I like best — designers work closely with programmers, artists, level designers — everybody on the development team. The process of taking an idea, which starts out as just a thought in your head, and working with other creative people to turn it into something real, is pretty amazing.
The worst part… there really isn’t anything I dislike about being a designer. Maybe losing an argument to Todd. But luckily, I hardly ever lose…
How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
That’s a long, convoluted story. Like most people (at least most people of my age) it was a series of accidents, although my path is probably even more roundabout than most. I was in grad school at Duke, supposedly working on my Ph.D. in history but really trying to figure out what I should do with my life (having learned almost too late that I didn’t really like teaching or doing research — oops). Since I had always liked designing games, I started applying for designer jobs (I have no idea anymore where I was finding these — perhaps on whatever primitive series of tubes existed in those ancient days). Bethesda called me up from North Carolina for an interview, I guess mainly on the strength of my wargame design, and as I mentioned, I got hired in as the most junior designer possible. But I was completely psyched to have the job, and in fact couldn’t believe what they were letting me do right off the bat. “You mean, I can just make this dungeon any way I want?” “Yes, that’s your job. Go away please.”
So… showing some previous interest (and finished work) as a designer is good, even if it isn’t directly related. In my case, what also helped me out was leaving the game industry for a while and learning programming (again, mostly by a series of happy accidents). That eventually turned into a job at VR-1 as a programmer, and that experience has been invaluable coming back to Bethesda as a designer. Being able to look at the C++ code, and discuss with the programmers how the various systems will actually be implemented, has been a great asset. If you’re technically inclined and also have an interest in design, you can only help yourself by learning C++ or (even better) working as a programmer.
What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
That’s a tough one. I’m going to confine my answer to video games (board games it would probably be Titan). And basing “favorite” on “number of hours spent”, I’d have to go with Civilization in all its forms, closely followed by Company of Heroes (my current favorite) and maybe the various Ultimas (which sucked up many of my teenage hours).
What games are you looking forward to?
I have 3 little girls (0, 3 and 6) so I’m always way behind the times compared to other folks around the office. I’m just now getting around to playing Guitar Hero for the first time… looking forward to Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty 4 (see what I mean?). Oh, you mean games that haven’t actually been released yet? Far Cry 2 has really got my attention — Clint Hocking is a really smart and ambitious designer and I’m interested to see where he’s going to take the possibilities of a dynamic, open world in the FPS genre.
What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
I often go to sleep mulling over some design problem or other, or thinking about a story or setting element. When I wake up, I often have an insight or a good idea that I need to write down or discuss with someone. There’s nothing better than loving your job!
Worst job you’ve ever had?
Manning the meat rake at Taco Bell. I do not kid. That job was so bad that even my mom encouraged me to quit. Food service industry: not for me. I preferred working a pesticide packaging line at Dow Chemical, if you want to know how much I disliked my Taco Bell gig…
Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Hobbies and interests? Spare time? Hahaha. Did I mention that I have 3 little girls? I used to have hobbies and interests… wargaming, which has merged into Eurogaming (any game that I can’t finish in an evening is just too long for me these days). I read a lot of various kinds of books — I still read a lot of history, plus sci-fi and the occasional fantasy (assuming it comes recommended by someone I trust — too much drek these days to pick randomly). I still play video games as much as I can find the time for. Plus hiking and camping when I can find the time.