Inside the Vault: Fred Zeleny

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Today’s Inside the Vault = Fred Zeleny, designer.

What’s your job at Bethesda?
I’m a Quest Designer, which means I spend most of my time writing quests, dialogue for characters, and occasionally get to have a hand in systems and mechanics designs. “Designer” is a very vague term, and every company defines it differently. The only part of the job description that every company seems to agree on is that designers have two vital tasks:

  1. Making sure the player has an enjoyable experience while playing the game.
  2. Disagreeing with other designers about how to do #1.

What other games have you worked on?
Nothing that ever saw the light of day. I had a lot of experience with interactive media design and from my college courses and previous work as a Flash designer, but those weren’t really what you’d call games. I made pharmacy training software, which was about as dull as it sounds, but it paid well.

Most of my game-making experience actually came from tabletop RPGs and as a national storyteller for live-action roleplaying games. For clarification, I was one of the weirdos who dressed up like a vampire and played rock-paper-scissors, unlike the other type of live-action roleplaying weirdos, who dress up like knights and hit each other with padded weapons.

It’s right down there on the geek hierarchy with writers of erotic fanfic, but it was great training for making the sort of hugely open-ended plots we used in Fallout. After all, these stories had to be general enough to be run in dozens of games across the nation, while still being personal and distinctive enough to appeal to each player individually.

What is the best part about working as a designer? The worst part?
The most amazing part of design work comes at the beginning of a project, when you get to brainstorm all of the brilliant things you want to do in your game/expansion/quest. The world is an empty vessel, and you can fill it with every good idea you’ve ever had, along with the unexpected ideas from the rest of the team, until you have a chest full of brilliant design gems, all gleaming with cleverness and potential. It’s a playful stroll through the fields of creativity, and it makes you giddy.

Then you’re off on the real work of game development – taking all of those idyllic plans and making them actually work in the game. Writing all of the dialogue, testing all of the logic, putting in the late hours to play and revise your work to make sure it connects with the player and feels right. It’s not glamorous, but it’s satisfying work. But no matter how much you like it, it’s not a playful stroll anymore — it’s a hike, and the more ambitious your goals were at the start, the heavier the baggage you’ll be carrying.

And all too soon, you come to the worst part of being a designer, when you have to decide what baggage to drop. You have to pick and choose what you can actually get done, and done right for the project. You only have so much time and manpower to implement things, and every good idea has a lot of nasty surprises that’ll show up during implementation. You dread making the cuts, because removing a good idea is like chopping off a finger, but the sooner you pinpoint what you can’t get done right, the easier the whole process will be. And if you try to do everything, all the time, you’ll miss deadlines, make shoddy work, or burn out entirely.

Everyone who wants to be a game designer always thinks of the fun part, the here’s-a-brilliant-idea part. But the real test of being a good game designer is how well you can manage your baggage and how long you can do the real work of implementing them. And that means you have to know when to cut an idea, even though it hurts.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
I’ve got four pieces of advice for getting into design, and I know they worked because they’re how I got in. It took me almost seven years from graduation, and a few false-starts, but it worked:

  • Know someone on the inside – Sure, there are lots of other ways you can increase your chances, but none of them will get you in the door like knowing someone who already works in the industry. It won’t magically get you a job at the top or anything, but it’ll help you get yourself into the industry, and once you’re already in the club, it’s easier to move up. And talking with them will give you priceless insights in how the industry works, and even if it’s really what you want to do.
  • Have social skills – The days of major games being the work of lone auteurs is gone. These days, anything larger than a small flash game is the work of a team of designers, programmers, artists, and testers, and the quality of that game is directly related to how well the team communicated and worked together. Companies that care about good games know this, and how well you can work in a team is at least as important to them as the quality of your individual work. You can be a genius, but if nobody wants to work with you, you’re not getting hired for the team.
  • Work your way up — Don’t be afraid to start at the bottom and work your way up. I got my start in the industry proper as a tester in QA, and before that, I did unpaid testing for tabletop and card games. Don’t let your ego get in the way, work as hard as you would in your preferred game job, and always keep learning more about the process of making games. My time as a tester gave me a lot of experience with common mistakes in mechanics and sticking points in stories, all of which has helped me become a better designer.
  • Play games! Critique games. Then make your own! — It’s the three-part cycle of any art: experience other people’s work, find what you do and don’t like about them, and then make your own material. Then repeat. Each step reinforces the other two steps: playing other games will give you insight into the variety of possibilities. Critiquing work will help you realize what you want to see more of in games, and what doesn’t quite work, and why. Making your own games will show you how difficult it is to avoid some of those problems, and what really goes into making good ideas work. Whether you’re making games out of index cards, homebrew RPG rules, or your own modifications in the GECK, don’t neglect to make your own games.

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
That’s like asking what my favorite food of all time is — it depends on what I’m hungry for at the time. But here’s a few favorites that have inspired me, in chronological order:

  • The Bard’s Tale: I grew up on my father’s knee as he played the Bard’s Tale games on our Commodore 128 (along with just about every Infocom game that ever came out). At first, he played, and I watched or occasionally mapped a dungeon. But as the games went on, I took over playing and mapping, with him helping at the puzzles. Who says videogames are bad for families?
  • Fallout: Yeah, it’s an obvious one, but it showed me whole worlds of potential in video games. I had already been a lifelong gamer at the time, but it wasn’t until around the time Fallout came out that I realized I wanted to make them. I never would have predicted that ten years later, I’d be working on the franchise!
  • Jet Grind Radio, and its better-known sequel Jet Set Radio Future: One of the first games I played with a truly consistent and pervasive sense of style, with its ebullient movement, popping beats, and playful visuals. My personal guideline for when a game becomes art is when it changes the way you think and see the world, and silly as they were, these games changed the way look at space and movement, always looking for clean lines and smooth flow between areas and ideas.

What games are you looking forward to?
At the moment, I’m still working my way through good games from Christmas. One of the terrible truths of working in game development is that you spend so much time making your game, you have trouble finding time to play anyone else’s. It hasn’t helped that there are so many good games coming out nowadays.

But, truth be told, although I’m looking forward to a couple big name games coming out, I probably spend the most time playing little Flash games on Kongregate.com, or indie games from all over. So many independent developers are playing with new styles and free to try crazy ideas because they don’t have to worry about losing a million dollars if the game doesn’t catch on. I think these sorts of games are the real strength of PC gaming, because anyone can make a browser game, but that’s not always an option for the consoles.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
I’m lucky if I make it into bed in the first place. Normally, I fall asleep at my desk reading something, or on the couch playing a game, or in a chair in the middle of taking off my shoes after a long walk. Or occasionally, on the floor after too much whiskey. When you can fall asleep almost anywhere, beds seem too obvious.

But nothing gets me up on my feet again quite like the promise of some kind of adventure, whether it’s wandering through a new town, meeting new people, or learning a new skill. As long as it ends with a good story to tell, then it’s well worth it.

Worst job you’ve ever had?
Back in my spotty youth, I was an actual, honest-to-goodness door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. I traveled around the tri-state area, trying to get perfectly rational people to let me into their home, dump crud on their floors, and then sell them a tool to fix it. I thought I’d be okay at it because I’m all too cheerful and good at talking with people, but it wasn’t until I tried that I realized I couldn’t in good faith ask them to part with money, for something they didn’t really need.

So even though I enjoyed getting to meet new people and have odd conversations with them, every day was a little more miserable because I hated the entire point of the work. In my three months, I only sold one vacuum cleaner, and that was to my grandmother, who took pity on me.

And in all that time as a traveling salesman, I never met one farmer’s daughter. What a waste of a summer!

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Just about anything and everything. Martial arts, hiking, social games, charcoal drawing, massage, cooking, programming, etc. I’m always willing to learn new skills and try new experiences, because you never know what you’ll learn and how you’ll be able to apply it to other parts of your life. It’s especially important for writing to have a variety of experiences, because it gives you more perspectives for your characters and stories! And that applies to making games, too!

Reader Comments

  1. how about insted of putting up new post u guys address the problem on the crash issues with the pitt because we sill got’em

  2. 1. Will you be writing the scripts for TESV?

    2. Do people at Bethesda call you Kirby? Rainbow? – Just Kidding.

    3. Did you write any of the scripts for the quests in Fallout 3 and it’s DLC, and if so, which ones?

  3. BARDS TALE what a classic mix of text and emerging graphics technology. I used to play all the time on my Commodore Amiga 500 along with the similar DRAGON WARS.

    Thanks for the very alive natural and immersive quests especially the humour which is all over the place.

  4. What is the best part about working as a designer? The worst part?

    Your answer to that question is a good model for modders to go by. There would probably be a lot more sucessful projects if your methods were adopted by more modders.

    Very good interview!

  5. @ worm82075, absolutely agreed. Reading Fred’s co-worker Erik’s suggestions (basically the same) on how to approach game design totally changed how I make my mods, and has been a great foundation to work from. I stopped making huge notes in a book before I got started, and now just briefly outline things and if any idea – no matter how good it seems (literally) on paper – doesn’t work in the game, it goes.

    Thanks, Fred and Ash, for a really fun and informative read.

  6. Fix The Pitt now! On the other hand I could just try and get back my ten dollars and sell my copy of Fallout 3 at GameStop and buy Fable II or something.

  7. I would be happy if they just fixed original Fallout 3…their only released patch made the game even worse, VATS does not work, there is horrible mouse acceleration etc, it is just appalling how bad their support is…they should learn a thing or two (or thousand) from CDProjekt…

  8. First off let me say thank you for one of the best games I’ve played in a long while.

    If you don’t mind me asking, is there anything you wish you could have put into the game but couldn’t due to lack of time or technical limits?

  9. Fred is awesome. I’ve known him since he was a wee lad. He wasn’t a newspaper delivery boy, but he played one on TV. So glad to see he has grown up as twisty and strange as the rest of us – only far more talented. WTG Fred!

  10. hey this isnt exactly on topic but would you be able to find out if OBLIVION ELDER SCROLLS is coming out for the psp there are rumors about it but i could never find the true story plz try to email me back thanks!!