Inside the Vault: Bruce Nesmith


Today’s Q&A is with Bruce Nesmith, our Director of Design. I first met Bruce over a decade ago working here at Bethesda (pre-Zenimax). I remember Bruce and Todd Howard shared an office together back then. Bruce did a lot of system design and also worked on the Thieves Guild in Oblivion.

What’s your job at Bethesda?

I am the Director of Design, and a Senior Game Designer. It sounds cooler than it is.

You’ve worked in the industry for a while now.

I actually started out doing computer games for the TRS-80 and Apple II+. Ah, those were the days. 64K of memory, 5 ¼ inch floppy disks, four color video. They didn’t even have a mouse! It wasn’t long before I moved into pen and paper roleplaying games and board games for TSR, which I did for about 12 years. Then in 1995 I was hired by Bethesda Softworks. They were working on a little game called Daggerfall. I did a lot of work on that title. I also contributed to Terminator: Skynet, Redguard, Battlespire, PBA Bowling, X-Car, and eventually Morrowind.

What pen and paper RPGs did you work on?

I’ve lost count of the games I made while at TSR. I did work with Marvel Superheroes, D&D, AD&D (1st and 2nd edition), Gamma World, and Buck Rogers. I’m probably best known as the author of the original Ravenloft boxed set. For quite a while I was the lead for that product line. I also did work with Dark Sun, Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance, and Mystara. I was the designer of the Dragonstrike board game, and worked heavily on the Spellfire collectible card game.

How many board games do you current have? Your favorites?

I don’t know how many board games I have. I know that they fill a wall, floor to ceiling and about 16 feet long. Let’s just say it’s a lot. My all time favorite would have to be Cosmic Encounters. It’s the greatest board game ever made. Don’t bother trying to argue with me. I’m not listening. La-la-la.

I’m also very fond of Star Fleet Battles, Carcassonne, and Space Hulk. I could list a dozen more, but that would defeat the purpose.

What is the best part about being a designer? The worst part?

Being a game designer rocks. There are no ifs ands, or buts about it. Every day I just get to make s**t up. What a life! Seriously though, the great thing about being a game designer is the energy you get from creating something fun. You are surrounded by a bunch of highly talented, excited people that want to do the same thing. Most of them are interested in the same things you are. That’s really rare in other industries.

The worst part is all the other stuff. One common misconception about game designers is that they get to decide everything about the game. Making games is the art of bringing together many talents. All those other guys have their opinions and their ideas. And guess what? They are just as right as you are, and their ideas are just as good. Inevitably many of your ideas end up on the cutting room floor to make room for better ideas from other people. I’ve always maintained that you have to have a thick skin to work in this business.

What is your favorite part about working on Fallout?

I’ve always loved the post-apocalyptic setting. I did a lot of work with Gamma World while at TSR and really loved it. It was one of my favorite non-traditional roleplaying games. In particular, the work we’re doing with multiple paths through a quest and the moral choices the player has to make are very cool.

It also doesn’t suck to empty a clip into a Supermutant and watch him dissolve into a gory mess.

How did you get into the industry? Do you have any tips for breaking in?

My story is the worst example of how to get into gaming. In college I was hired to program a replacement accounting system for the college administration. They had a brand new HP-3000 computer. Yeah, it was that long ago. Of course programming accounting software in COBOL is the third plane of hell. So in the evenings and weekends I worked on my own project, a dungeon crawling game. You know the type. Pound signs for walls, periods for empty spaces, the letter D for doors.

When the fall semester began, my game was a huge hit on campus. Of course it didn’t hurt that the system was brand new and there wasn’t anything else to play on it. Over the next year I created three other games, but none ever achieved the popularity of Dungeon.

It turns out that the HP sales person for the college was also the sales person for TSR, whose offices were in a nearby town. She told them that they should contact me. So I’m just sitting around, minding own business in my dorm room, when I get a call from TSR asking me if I would be interested in interviewing for a job as computer games programmer. My recommendation to all of you burning to get into this industry; don’t sit around waiting for them to call you. It may have worked for me, but I was lucky.

To finish out the story, when I came in for the interview, they put me in the vice president of sales office. I was placed in a folding chair in the corner. Nine people trooped in and took seats in a semi-circle around me. I later found out that half of them were senior executives of one sort or another. They just start firing questions at me. I was so naïve that I didn’t even realize this is not how a typical job interview goes. I must have done alright, because they hired me.

What is it like working at Bethesda?

We have a great environment here at Bethesda Game Studios. One of the things I am most proud of with our team is the lack of run-a-muck egos. Everyone here is willing to listen to ideas from almost any source. It makes for a great team where everyone feels valued. Without any doubt we have one of the best teams in the industry.

Many people in gaming like to work in dark offices. I’m an exception because I like a lot of light. So it sucks that we are in a basement with no overhead lighting. The whole floor is dark and gloomy. However, I do get a space with high, solid walls. No office cubes here. We have our own kitchen, which is great. And every Wednesday is cookie day. Can’t beat cookie day!

What kinds of games to you play?

I play almost any type of game, except sports games. I’m particularly partial to strategy games. I’ve played a wide variety of first person shooters and roleplaying games as well. I’ve been a huge fan of the Civilization games, Half-Life, and Baldur’s Gate.

What is your favorite game from the past year?

I’d have to say Company of Heroes. It’s the best RTS I’ve ever played, and I’ve played a lot of them. Space Empires V would run a close second. It’s a little known turn based strategy game of interstellar conquest.

What games are you looking forward to?

I’m eager to play Bioshock and Mass Effect. Both look amazing.

What are you hobbies and interests?

I love astronomy. Unfortunately the light pollution in my town is pretty bad, so observing is difficult. I’m an avid reader of fantasy and science fiction. I dabble in martial arts. Of course I love playing video games. I’m a swim meet referee. I’ve been PTA president a few times.

Reader Comments

  1. Sure you can ask. You can go back through the Inside the Vaults and note that we try not to always ask the same questions to everyone each time. Otherwise we feel like it gets stale and boring.

  2. Nice one Pete. Ill bet anything that will see that question asked again only in cases where answer is – yes.

    So… i gather this one is also not guilty for the SuperMutants? I wonder who that misterious individual is… probably a janitor.

    Hello mr. Bruce.
    Did you ever play any of the Fallout games and if you did what did you like about them? Do you use any of them as a reference in your job?

    And next time…could you turn that screen more towards the camera? 🙂

  3. The fact that Bruce is one of the two (the other being Andria Hayday) who designed the original Ravenloft Black Box for Ad&d 2ºEd boosts my confidence in whatever may be produced by Bethesda. 🙂

  4. Learning about the people behind a gaming company has never been important for me, as the products and support are the only thing that is important to a customer. However, for some reason I kept reading this, guess it just hit me that this guy did what I (so far) has failed to do, and on top of that I’m glad he is working on (or has worked on) games I like to play.
    NB: Boardgames owns any other type of gaming.

    And yes, sport games are only cool if they involve heat-seeking missiles.

  5. kaos, it’s already been asked more than once when the answer is no, and when the answer is yes, and it’s not been asked at all several times already. So, I don’t think your argument holds much water based on all the Inside the Vault’s we’ve done to date.

  6. Are you the one who came up with the name Vistani? Where did you get it from, because I have found a historical reference to a real-world gypsy group calling itself ‘Vitsano.’