Inside the Vault: Obsidian’s Eric Beaumont

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We’re back with another Inside the Vault this week. This time around, it’s Eric Beaumont from Obsidian Entertainment.

What’s your job at Obsidian?

I am a Senior Designer, currently working on Fallout: New Vegas.

What’s your favorite part of your job?  Least favorite part?

Favorite part…okay, there’s this scene in the movie Inception (no spoilers, promise) where they bring in a character to be a “dream architect” and they give the character a taste of what it’s like to shape dreams, but then the character leaves abruptly. The line was something like, “Don’t worry, they’ll be back. Once you get a taste of shaping a world nothing else can compare.” That’s my favorite part of designing games.

The first time you put together a level and get the creatures and characters running around the way you want in a game – it’s more than just rewarding on an intellectual level – it’s exciting in a visceral, child-like-wonder sort of way. I haven’t worked on a single project where one designer or another doesn’t call a bunch of people into their office to show them this “cool thing” they just did. And there isn’t a drop of arrogance in the sharing of the thing, just child-like excitement. Grown men and women showing off this amazing or funny or just plain weird thing that is going on in the game-world like children in a playground seeing a lizard for the first time. Favorite part.

Least favorite – Staring at hundreds of lines of script code trying to figure out why the creature you scripted to walk from point A to point B is just standing there mocking you with its total immobility. This may be the very same creature that just yesterday performed to the wonder and cheers of the group who stood in your office to see the “cool thing,” but today it just absolutely refuses to do your bidding. Now it’s hours later and you’ve tried every trick you know – and a few you’ve made up on the spot – to get your creature to move – nothing is working. Finally you give up and go home defeated. The next day, after a good night’s rest you look over the same piece of script you almost literally broke your brain staring at the day before and notice in a few seconds that the creature’s name is Bobzilla014two, not Bobzilla014three as you wrote (incorrectly) in the script. You change the “3” to a “2” and, well lookie there, it’s walking from point A to point B just like you wanted.  (Pro-tip: If you find yourself baffled like this, swallow your pride and have a fellow designer look over your shoulder as you walk them through your script. You’ll find the answer in about 10 to 30 seconds, promise.)

How did you get involved in the game industry?

At the end of high school, and through college, I worked as a restaurant manager at Disneyland. Great job, great perks, but aside from becoming an Imagineer (which I applied for once), there wasn’t much else for me to do with an English degree at the Magic Kingdom. I quit there without any real savings or other job offers. I bounced around temp jobs and had a few interviews for “real” writing jobs, but eventually I realized that I needed some steady work to pay the bills. Right about the time that Virgin Interactive was about to close its doors (glad to see them coming back, by the way), I was randomly looking through the paper for a job and ran into an ad for “video game testers wanted.” At the time I didn’t even know that such a job existed! It didn’t pay well, or seem to be a much better career choice than fast-food did, but having spent most of the 80’s playing Dungeons & Dragons and throwing quarters into arcade machines, it seemed like the perfect job to me.

I went to the interview in slacks and a white dress shirt… they must have thought I was crazy. I kept saying that I wanted the job and they kept trying to talk me out of it. Eventually they believed me and gave me the job. So for about six months, I tested what were to be the last games that Virgin Interactive Entertainment ever published (at least until now). Just before the end, Westwood Studios bought up the remaining assets and people to open Westwood Pacific Studios (in Irvine) and they needed some designers. I went into that interview (dressed more like a game developer this time) with screenshots of a terribly-designed StarCraft level and a half-completed Quake II level. Thankfully the interview went better than my samples looked (although they were full-color on glossy paper!) and I was offered a job as a junior designer.. I went straight to work as one of the four designers on an action-role-playing game called Nox. We had less then twelve months to finish it and we were pretty much starting from scratch. To this day that was the longest and hardest crunch I’ve had to work, with almost a solid nine months of 60 to 100 hour weeks, but it’s also some of the fondest memories I have of my time in the industry. Since then I’ve gone on to bigger and better things, as they say, with the best being this opportunity to work on my favourite franchise, Fallout.

As a game gets closer to release, do you have any tips for breaking in? Did modding games help you get started?

I got into the industry the hard way…or the dumb-luck way maybe, so I might not be the best source for tips on this. I do have one bit of advice I might be able to pass along that came from one of my old leads (that I’ve since adopted into my own approach when interviewing potential designers): Only hire people whose work you won’t have to go back and fix later. The actual quote is a little more colorful (and a little less printable), but that’s the essence. What that should mean to anyone who’s trying to break into the industry is that you should be able to talk about the finer points of design and you should be able to demonstrate that you can design. Don’t just talk about games that you like, but be able to say exactly why you like them. Don’t just say you hate a game – say why you hate it and what you would do to fix it. (You also might want to do your homework and make sure that you aren’t tearing apart a game that your interviewer(s) worked on!) Bring a working level you made, preferably built with a popular, modern game engine/editor (bonus points if it’s from the same genre as the game you’re applying for). Degrees in relevant fields and/or from a game design college don’t hurt either, but they’re also no guarantee if you can’t survive the interview.

If you could pick someone’s brain in the game industry, who would it be?

Warren Spector. I love the games he’s done and I’ve always been inspired by his design philosophy. I read an article he wrote about how dialogue-trees in role-playing games haven’t really changed or evolved since the beginning of the industry. At the end of the article he issued a challenge to everyone working in the industry to find a new way to convey dialogue in games. I’ve spent the last few years struggling with that issue in the games that I’ve designed. I don’t have the magical answer yet, but it’s led me to question the basic principles of design that I always took for granted before and for that I’m grateful.

To date, what’s been the highlight of your career?

That is a hard question. In many ways my entire career has felt like a highlight. Being a working designer on high-profile games is, percentage-wise, as unlikely a thing to be as a successful actor or professional athlete. I mean, to be able to get paid to make video games all day… I’ve had people not believe me when I tell them that this is what I do for a living. But if I had to call-out just one highlight it would have to be getting one of my levels individually mentioned as one of the “stand outs” of the game in PC Gamer magazine. Back then I was more of a level designer than a full-fledged game designer and getting a level specifically mentioned in an article was something that didn’t happen often. The game was Command and Conquer: Generals and I still have the issue of the magazine, and I still use the quote in my portfolio.

What games are you looking forward to?

I’ve always been a fan of the post-apocalyptic setting in games and when you add cars with mounted .50 cal machine guns to the mix then I’m the first in line, so I can’t wait for id Software’s RAGE to come out. I’m equally excited about Team Ico’s The Last Guardian and I cannot wait to play the high-def versions of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus.

Worst job you’ve ever had?

I mentioned that I bounced around a few temp jobs before, well one of them was for the company that runs the coupon printers you see in supermarkets sometimes. My job there was to call supermarkets around the country and tell them that our central computer was reporting that some of the printers in their store were down. Then I had to get them to stop what they were doing and walk them through how to restart the printer (which sometimes had up to nine steps). It was a lot like doing some messed-up version of cold-call tech-support for people who didn’t want anything fixed. It was fascinating in its own way to call a supermarket in Alaska or Louisiana and have these bizarre conversations with people, but it was also pretty much the worst job ever.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

Video games, movies, golf, books, hanging out with the family… and bonus points whenever I can combine any of those things. I recently taught my five-year-old daughter how to play Mario and now she can finish the entire first level on her own! (Well, daddy still needs to help with some of the harder jumps sometimes, but it’s nice to be needed.)

Anything else you’d like to share?

Fallout: New Vegas. North-northwest. Wind-Brahmin. That’s all I’m going to say.

Reader Comments

  1. [I went straight to work as one of the four designers on an action-role-playing game called Nox.]

    Fantastic rpg and i loved the flood of colours all over it. It felt very interactive and had just the right balance of fear when it came to surviving combat. Made me very cautious exploring dungeons due to the lethal like realism of death around every corner.

    [I’ve always been a fan of the post-apocalyptic setting in games and when you add cars with mounted .50 cal machine guns to the mix then I’m the first in line, so I can’t wait for id Software’s RAGE to come out.]

    Woah! Mind jolt! Got a Steve Jackson CAR WARS rpg flashback reading that :D

  2. “Wind-Brahmin”! i smell something on the wind…

    these “Inside the Vault” features are one of the reasons i return to the Beth Blog. i really love the candid discussions and the feel that there are geeks gamers just like us that are working on these games. sometimes i wonder if i wanna bail on my job as an interaction designer and start designing or writing for games… i’ll wait ’til my options can be exercised, then y’all can fight over me!

  3. Fantastic interview, it’s really fascinating to hear about how you got into the industry, Eric. I appreciate your passion and the detail in your answers.

    A new way to convey dialogue trees? How about a system based on an overall scale of emotion, a bit like in Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit where the all protagonists’ actions were on a stress scale, but this time various levels of ‘contentment’ could be used where every NPC reaction affects your character, e.g. INT < 4, someone calls him 'dumb' – creating aggressive dialogue choices. Same goes for when your character can dictate how mean or nice he wants to be to NPCs, and in turn their reactions also differ. Not really groundbreaking, but I think if applied right – a way of controlling and being driven by emotional responses – it could well work successfully.