Inside the Vault: Jeff Browne

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I realized the other day that we hadn’t really talked with any of our level designers so here is Jeff Browne. Jeff did some great work on our Oblivion DLC, including Knights of the Nine and Shivering Isles. He is now hard at work, putting together some pretty amazing levels for Fallout 3.

What’s your job at Bethesda?
I am a level designer and currently working on Fallout 3. My job consists of coming up with ideas for layouts based on quest designs, designer feedback, and what I think would be fun. Then I block them out in the editor and write up a quick level design document (LDD) for each layout. In the LDD, I explain the basic flow, mood, atmosphere, and gameplay I want to have in the level. Throughout the course of the project, the level continuously changes based on feedback from leads, level designers, QA, peer reviews, etc. In the end, I hope to have a level that is interesting, fun, and memorable.

What other games have you worked on?
I joined the team near the end of Oblivion and worked on a handful of dungeons for the game, either coming up with new layouts, or making previous dungeons more fun and exciting. For DLC, I worked on the Fighter’s Stronghold, teamed up with Joel Burgess on Mehrunes Razor, and did a level (Fort Bulwork I believe) for Knights of the Nine. Then I worked on Shivering Isles and now Fallout 3.

Before Bethesda, I was the game designer and one of the level designers for Eclipse, a total conversion of Half-Life 2.

What is the best part about working as a level designer? The worst part?
The level designers have the best job in the world. We get to create different worlds, environments, and memorable experiences…anything we want for the player. Personally, I really enjoy coming up with an idea for a layout, putting it in game, and then asking myself, “Ok, now what can I do in this level to make the player remember this moment?” I then get to thinking about interesting vistas, story elements, scripted events, etc. I also enjoy telling a story without having to explain it through text. The player should walk into a room, look at his surroundings, and come up with his own interpretation of what has happened in the room. There are so many other “best parts” of being a level designer, but I’ll shut up now.

The worst part? Not the worst part, but the most difficult part I have as a level designer is showing someone outside the level design department my first pass on level and explaining to them what will happen or how it will look. It’s hard to show someone a first pass on a level and convince them how it’s going to be one of the best levels in the game – they’re just looking at an empty level. If you can take a vivid picture or idea in your mind and successfully explain it to someone, then you’ll have an easier time with anything you do. I just have a difficult time doing this.

Ok ok, the worst part… coming up with names for my levels. It’s difficult and at times I think it’s a spoiler for the player when he reads the name of the level he’s about to enter and it basically reveals what’s in the level. Yeah, that’s the best I could come up with, sorry.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
I’ve always wanted to create worlds for games, ever since I can remember. But I never took it seriously until after undergrad. I graduated from Amherst College with a BA in Computer Science and a minor in Economics, but soon came to dislike programming in general and didn’t want to get into investment. I wasn’t that good at it and most of all, I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t want to be stuck behind a desk doing something I didn’t enjoy. Then I heard about a new graduate program involving game creation down in Dallas, TX. I researched the idea of getting into games and decided to send in an application to the Guildhall at SMU for Level Design. I never thought I would get in because I didn’t have that much experience in designing levels. My application was mainly paper maps.

I ended up getting into the program and spent the next two years learning everything I could about level design and game creation in general. The school was new and untested, but they taught me what I needed to know. I worked extremely hard for those two years, worked on four games, and a handful of side projects. I worked on a team of two for a 2D side-scroller, a team of seven for a FAKK2 mod, a team of 12 for an Unreal 2K4 mod (Dark Territory), and then a team of 17 for the HL2 total conversion, Eclipse. I also built some Call of Duty maps with the little spare time I had.

When I graduated in June 2005, I had experience with several editors (Hammer, UnrealEd, Radiant), 3DStudio Max, and Photoshop. But more importantly, I had experience in communication across disciplines (art, programming, and design) and worked on teams of different sizes.

Is a graduate school like the Guildhall for everyone? No, but it’s a great way to get your feet wet in the workings of the game industry. With anything, it comes down to how badly you want something, how much work you’re willing to put into it, what sacrifices you’re willing to make, and confidence that you can do it. I could’ve gone through that program and just done the minimum work required and probably not have gotten anywhere with it. But, I had a passion for level design, worked late hours to learn everything I could about it, and practiced, practiced, practiced.

Now that I’ve been working at Bethesda for a little bit, I can tell you the number one thing you need to know how to do is communicate with other people, especially across disciplines. If you can understand how an artist works or what a programmer does, it makes it easier to communicate your ideas to them and understand where they are coming from. Also, smile. It’s the easiest thing you can do and people will be more comfortable approaching you with questions and answers. The more people are comfortable approaching one another in a studio, the fewer breakdowns in communication occur, which results in less tempers flaring, less lost work, and less stress.

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
I have personal favorites based mostly on nostalgia (King’s Quest VI, Everquest, CoD), but my favorite of all time is probably Planetside. I joined Planetside well after the introduction of BFRs, but I still think it’s a game that has the most exciting and tactical gameplay around. Its learning curve is a little steep, but once you get over it, a whole other world of gameplay opens up. It’s one of those games that excel on memorable moments. You get through playing a session of Planetside and you can talk with someone for a long time about the crazy experiences you had — well after you finished playing. Many games have moments, but making them memorable post-game is difficult to achieve (especially in a Multiplayer game). Games like CoD (which I enjoy) have in-game moments, but try talking to someone after playing a session of an FPS like CoD and Unreal and you’ll have a difficult time coming up with memorable moments like you would after playing Planetside. To this day I can still recall, with vivid detail, experiences I had while playing Planetside.

What games are you looking forward to?
Planetside 2 – come on, someone in the industry has got to make it!

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
Realizing that I am very lucky to have a job I enjoy so much. It’s a lot harder getting out of a nice, cozy bed when you constantly dread going to work.

Worst job you’ve ever had?
Busboy at a local restaurant in my hometown of Victor, NY (near Rochester). Cleaning up after others and splitting measly tips with waiters is not fun. But then again, it wasn’t that bad of a job — I think it was a step up from washing dishes there.

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I really enjoy the outdoors. My favorite pastime is fishing (freshwater). Most days, except in the winter, I get out of work around six and head to the local reservoir and go fishing. I started indoor rock climbing with a bunch of guys here at work and see myself continuing to do so for awhile. We also get out for some soccer twice a week during the warmer months.

I want to get back into Tae Kwon Do again (I stopped practicing during undergrad). I also started oil painting about a year ago. I blame Bob Ross for getting me into painting — I find his videos mesmerizing…kind of creepy. But the guy rocks and is a role model for anyone. He truly enjoyed what he did and wanted nothing more than to help others do the same. RIP Bob!

I spend a lot of time with my girlfriend, Jess. We have this strange “hobby” of driving around Maryland, purposely getting lost and then trying to find our way back. I guess we’re a young pair of Sunday Drivers…kind of weird. And with gas prices the way they are today, it’s kind of an expensive hobby. But a lot of cool experiences come out of getting lost; I suggest you try it sometime. Just stick to the countryside, getting lost in a big city probably isn’t the smartest thing to do.

Reader Comments

  1. Thanks alot Mr.Browne for those amazing dungeon levels in THE SHIVERING ISLES Expansion. I thought it was some Bethesda old timer who created them because of the great retro TES 2 DAGGERFALL imagery and feel they have. Looking forward to seeing your TES V work when the time comes.

    Yea getting lost can be dangerous in the city especially if your looking for an occult book store :D

  2. Yea when your in front of a computer screen all day long that living the game dream becomes a nightmare. Always nice to have one or two other obssessions to indulge in if not for the sake of variety.

  3. Yea that will be extremely cool if it came with an editor. That could make it the ultimate sci-fi rpg with endless gameplay just like the Elder Scrolls series. A true FALL OUT for the new century of molding your artistic will into all that is before you as a creative extension of expression.

  4. how can you level up past level 20 in fallout 3 is there a editor or a mod for the x-box or can you mod the save game in the x-box fallout 3 game…..please have someone fix this….if not……thanks

  5. Hey Jeff,or maybe I should say “Dreamy” Glad to hear someone out there is enjoying his living! I don’t know the first thing about gaming but it sounds cool. Congrats to you and Jess. Hope you have many more years of getting lost ahead of you!!
    Big sis :)