Inside the Vault: Jon Paul Duvall

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This week we chat with Designer Jon Paul Duvall.

What’s your job at Bethesda?
I’m privileged to be on the design team.  I create characters and quests, write dialog, script objects, enter data on a bagillion forms (NPCs, creatures, items, etc.), help balance game systems, run around poking programmers and artists in the eyes, etc. No day is the same. And I love it.

What other games have you worked on?
Getting hired at Bethesda was my first game industry job. Before that I had various careers in the indie video, radio, and television industries. I came on board as the team was polishing up Oblivion. After that, I’ve been involved with Shivering Isles, Fallout 3, and all of the various downloadable content for Fallout.

What is the best part about being a designer? The worst part?
I can honestly say that I have the best job ever, at the best studio ever. I still wake up in the morning giddy to come in to work.

Everyone here is amazingly talented, and truly wonderful to work with. I’m always on my toes, stepping up my game, keeping up with all the awesomeness going on around me. And these people are my friends as much as coworkers. Most nights and weekends, if I’m not staying to work on the game, I’m staying late to play geeky board games with my buddies. This is a studio that plays together as much as we work together.

I enjoy that the role of a designer is so varied. Some days I’m dreaming up people, places, and adventures for the player to experience. Other days I’m poring over spreadsheets trying to figure out how to tweak numbers to make some game system balanced and fun. Other days I’m abusing the scripting system making the game do things it wasn’t meant to do (winning stern looks from programmers).

Another joy that comes only after releasing a game is reading what players are saying about it. Making videogames is about giving agency to players, giving them an experience in which they can lose themselves, expressing their unique personalities within the world we’ve created for them.  When we hear from them, it’s the best reward we can get. We make games for our players; it’s important for us to know what they think and feel about the experience.

Yeah, so I haven’t really answered the “worst part” of being a designer. While I can’t say there’s a “bad part” to being a designer, as in any creative endeavor, there are certainly painful but necessary parts of making a game.

There are always hard decisions that need to be made, some of which are controversial, and features and content which get cut because the game is better without them. At the end of the day, controversial decisions have always ended up serving the game as a whole.

Biting off more than you can chew is a time honored tradition here, but it can become extremely painful in the harsh light of milestones and deadlines. Learning where the line between more and better lives is probably the most important awareness to gain for any creative endeavor. It’s also something that one usually ends up learning the hard way.

We are also an extremely self critical group, especially the designers. More than one of us has come out of a Peer Review meeting bloody and exhausted. But the game is better for it, and likewise are we as designers.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?
I think it’s different for everybody. It’s still a fairly young and volatile industry, and lots of paths lead here, especially for a designer.

Todd Howard (Executive Producer, the boss of the dev studio) does a really good job hiring talented, hardworking, and humble people. He also seems to know, all other things being equal, when it’s right to hire the less experienced person because he/she will fit in better with the culture we have here.

My own personal story goes something like this:
Keeping tabs on Oblivion (because I am a rabid Elder Scrolls fan), I noticed a link for “Jobs.” I clicked it instinctively. I read the job description for an open Quest Designer position. With the exception of game industry experience, I felt I had all the qualifications. It seemed like a long shot, but worth it, as it was my dream job (quite literally).

They asked for a “quest document.” Not sure what the heck a quest document was, I fired up the Morrowind editor and deconstructed one of the quests in it. I got a sense for how all the various pieces of data fit together to form a quest (dialog, NPCs, items, script functions and variables, etc.).  And I asked myself, “How would you describe all this on paper?”

I then spent about a week and a half writing and editing a rather large document, detailing my philosophy on quest design, making some assumptions about Radiant AI (which I was completely wrong about), and outlining a rather complicated side quest detailing story, plot, NPCs, dialog, quest stages, and scripting, and a walk-thru. It must have been 30+ pages all said and done.

Knowing how busy things are now that I’m here, I don’t know how anyone had time to wade through that document. But it paid off, because when I asked Todd one day at lunch why he hired me, he said because of my quest doc.

Tips for breaking in? This is the only game studio I’ve worked at, so my experience with getting hired in the industry is limited. I’ve seen people come from nowhere (like I did), from our own internal QA department (which I hear is rare for a studio to do, but fairly often happens here), and from other studios.

If you do what you love, work hard and are committed, it will show. If you are confident in yourself and are a pleasant person to work with, others will also be confident in you and want you on their team. There’s a lot of luck involved in all of life’s Big Things, but being in the right place at the right time doesn’t do you any good if you aren’t prepared for it.

What would you say is your personal favorite game of all time?
Every time I go to name one, I think of another one. I have too many loves to pick just one.  It seems whatever I’m currently addicted to supplants my previous favorite of all time. Genres that have or continue to hold my attention: Interactive Fiction, MUDs, RPGs, Flight Sims, Sim-Whatevers, MMOs, FPS.

Lately I’ve been enjoying being social, so my videogame time has been spent on games with more player interaction, like Rock Band, Boom Blox (and other Wii games), and Left 4 Dead, or more casual games I can pick up and play and put down when I’m waiting for something. I’m becoming a fan of the iPhone as a gaming device. There are some really clever games on iTunes. More often than not lately, if I’m playing a game, it’s a board game. Current favorites: Battlestar Galatica, Race for the Galaxy, and Dominion.

What games are you looking forward to?
So many great games came out this past year! I’m so far behind in my game playing, anything I’d name has already been played to death by everyone else and would make me seem crusty and out of touch.

What makes you get out of bed in the morning?
The most annoying alarm clock ever devised. Seriously though, if I wasn’t an insomniac, it’d be easy getting up and coming to work; it’s the place I want to be.

Worst job you’ve ever had?
Between semesters in college, I’d get temp jobs. It’d invariably be data entry or filing at some corporate beehive. I’d last about two weeks before wanting to quit. At one place, all I did was open letters and determine what box to put them in, and highlight things in red if it was a letter from a lawyer.  My “boss” asked me to tie my hair back because long hair wasn’t appropriate for men in a corporate environment. I didn’t interact with anyone in the company, let alone with the public, and I had to tie my hair back because it offended some sense of “corporate maleness?” You can literally see souls being crushed in such places.

Any other hobbies and interests? What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I have more hobbies and interests than I know what to do with (or have time to do anything meaningful with): Juggling, writing, designing board games, photography, videography, web design, etc. The only thing that’s come close to being semi-vocational is making music.  I’ve put out a few self-published albums because people told me I had to or they would hurt me.  If anyone’s interested, search for “jon paul duvall” on iTunes or CDBaby. Lately I’ve been experimenting with various programs and midi controllers to get me out of the studio and in front of an audience with a live act.

Reader Comments

  1. Fairly interesting read. It’d be nice if there was a question like.. “What did you study in college?” or something along those lines, so people like myself know what to maybe go for when they try and select a college major. Nothing cheesy like “Game Design Major”, of course ;P

  2. @ Sketchit, Todd said in his DICE lecture that game design courses have really come a long way since “tightening up the graphics on level 3″, and some really strong candidates have been Game Design majors. The days of mocking are probably over. ;)

    @ Jon Paul, really nice and interesting interview. I had a temp job once that was nothing but filing. It was death by a thousand papercuts. Had a pathological hatred of it since. Re the insomnia thing, if you’re having trouble sleeping at night, try not drinking caffeine after midday. You can drink as much as you like in the morning, but I heard it takes 12 hours to fully filter through your system so every last trace will have worn off by midnight.

  3. The take away from your hiring story is if you want to be a Quest Designer: design good quests!

    Ah you say Dominion, but look at that shelf: I spy Republic of Rome, Dune! You can hide among your elegant Euros only for so long before the Ameritrash inside comes out and it’s Nexus Ops dice-fests and Talisman ’til the Unexploded Cows come home!

  4. @ryguy987…what’s the problem? Five posts ago, you were asking when Broken Steel would be out. Two posts ago, it was posted that the release date is May 5th.

    Anywho, great interview, guys. I really love reading about the crew that works at Bethesda. It’s nice to feel a connection to your games, greater than just what we see on the screen.

    Keep up the great work!!

    :)

  5. Interesting, and I like the Mournhold Map in the background of the picture. Those thing’s are really hard to find these days.

  6. JP does win a bunch of stern looks from us programmers with his shenanigans, but then he does this impish shrug-and-grin thing, and you just can’t stay mad at him then. We just throw up our hands and say, “That’s our Jon Paul!”, everyone laughs, and we break for commercial. This happens about every 12 minutes.

  7. Me, I was so happy when I saw the Planescape map. I said to myself: “That tower looks familiar” and low and behold I saw the little Planescape logo. Man, that was some great setting design.

  8. Jon Paul is my very good friend and he also went to high school with me. I remember him always being into games. They would have game nights at his house and his house was a mecca for kids into gaming. He was into role playing games and he and his friends were into Renaissance stuff. They also had a variety of video games and movies around as well.

    His dad worked with and repaired computers and there was a plethora of computers and parts everywhere!

    It is not surprising to me that Jon has found his calling in game design.

    I am not sure if someone else answered this question, but he studied film in college.

  9. I came across this while searching the ‘Name that Bethesda Employee’ thread on the Skyrim forums. I have, all my life, wanted to grow up and do something in the gaming industry (I’m 13 right now). Quest designer looks like something I would really be interested in doing, I love writing and I always try to make my stories make as much sense as possible (Unless my goal is to make it have no sense). I’ve spent most of my time looking up anything related to Skyrim, since announcement at least, and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading everyone’s ideas for Skyrim. I also know how scripting and texturing and stuff like that works and I’ve had some experience modding games like Minecraft. I honestly have no idea what I will do with my life when I am older but I would certainly enjoy working for a game company like Bethesda. It is kind of my dream-job, like yours.

    Anyways, this post really inspired me to just try and work as hard as I can do land a job like this. Thanks, for inspiring me.

    -Tony