Friday, December 18, 2020

From LucasArts to THQ to Microsoft: An Interview With Game Designer Jon Knoles


Jon Knoles grew up with an interest in drawing.  He drew many things, one of which was a drawing of Indiana Jones, the rugged archaeologist who fought bad guys in pursuit of an ancient artifact.  Ironically, Jon Knoles wound up working on an "Indiana Jones" game as an artist, a job which eventually led to a 15-year career at LucasArts.

In this interview, I talked with Jon Knoles about his 30-plus year career in the gaming industry.  We discuss things like how the role of game designer has evolved from being the man behind the game to the man responsible for keeping the project afloat.

We also discuss various projects he's worked on.  From memorable titles like Super Star Wars to not-so-memorable games like Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon.  For Knoles, while some games were better than others, each one was a learning experience.

I want to thank Jon Knoles for taking time out of his schedule to do this interview.

1. What led you to pursue a career in the gaming industry?

It was mostly accidental and opportunistic.  I was an artist as a kid and after high school, I went to an art school up in Seattle and studied illustration and graphic design.  We had computers, but only a few, so we learned via airbrush.

I played games in the 80's.  I spent time in the arcades and spent a lot of my lawnmower money there, but I didn't bother with stuff like the Nintendo when it came out.  That was more what my younger brother was into.

In 1989, I came across an ad from a job placement office at the school I went to.  Taito was looking for inexperienced but creative artists, and they had two openings.  My friend and I applied and we both got the job.  The first title I ever worked on was "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," and that's how I got my start.

2. What were some of the earliest titles you worked on?

"Last Crusade" in '89 was the first one.  As soon as we finished that, we all got laid off.  Through some of the contacts we made at Lucasfilm Games, we learned of job openings.  I sent them a VHS tape with a reel highlighting my artwork and other things I had done.  They said, "Well, you can come down if you want to.  There's a lot of people in California looking at the job, so we can't promise you anything."

So, I loaded up my 1963 Beetle and drove down to the Bay Area, interviewed with them and tested for about a week.  Testing means they put me to work creating assets for "Defenders of Dynatron City," an 8-bit Nintendo game that was tied to a cartoon and comic.

While I was working at that at Skywalker Ranch, two other guys in the room I was in were working on an 8-bit "Star Wars" game.  I really wanted to work on that, so I'd stay late and work on it, even though I wasn't assigned to.  I did it to show them I was interested, and I ended up getting the job.

Jon Knoles also did work on "Star Wars" for the NES, a job that required him to travel to Australia to work with the developers on the game.

3. How did you go from being an artist to a game designer?

That was sort of a field promotion if nothing else.  In the early days, developers wore lots of "hats."  I worked a lot on character animations, backgrounds, and cinematic work, but while doing that I would work on levels, so I became kind of a level designer as well.

I focused on art, both 2D and 3D, until the mid 90's.  The two teams I had worked most closely with had left to form their own company, but I decided to stay.  At the time, LucasArts asked if I would like to lead a project, which ended up being "Shadows of the Empire" on the Nintendo 64.

4. How has the role of game designer evolved over the years?

In the early days, the game designer was like Moses going off in the desert and returning with the tablets saying, "These are the things we shall build."  That worked until the teams got bigger and bigger, then it just became untenable.

Over time, it went from being the "Game God" who came down with the big document to more of a consensus builder, where your job is to take all the great ideas from all the people on the team and make it work within the constraints of what you're given.

As a game designer, the job is now to understand the boundaries and how you can push those boundaries, as well as ensuring the team hits the pillars, those big ideas that make up the vision that you're trying to make.  The job isn't trying to preach the vision, but to sell the team on the vision and be its biggest champion.

If the team goes on a tangent and pursues a new, exciting vision while hitting those pillars, that's great.  If it's going out of line or conflicts with another vision, then you need to remind the team what it is you're trying to accomplish.

5. Of the titles you worked on while at LucasArts, which one was your favorite and why?

There are things about all of them that I loved and hated or loved and wished I could have done more with.  The time I was probably the happiest was doing the Super Nintendo "Star Wars" games and the "X-Wing" and "Tie Fighter" games simultaneously.

I was just cranking out work, the games were well-received, and we felt we were on the cutting edge of graphics, which I especially liked given my art background.  We pushed the genre of flight-sims with "X-Wing" and "Tie Fighter."

Those were the happiest times, it gets a lot harder when I took on more responsibility starting "Shadows of the Empire, and continuing with "Episode 1 Racer," then "Bounty Hunter" and "Revenge of the Sith."  Those projects went from being 15-20 people to 75-100 people, and everyone's looking to you since you're the one steering the ship.

"Star Wars: Bounty Hunter" was a project where Jon consulted with George Lucas on the game's story.  Reflecting on the game, Jon said Lucas' advice helped clear up things like Jango Fett's motivations or why Jango would want to be used as the basis for the clone troops.

6. What are your key takeaways from your career at LucasArts?

When LucasArts was started, they made everything except "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" games, but when the prequels were announced, it led to a shift in the company, and now it was all about "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones."

While it was fun, there was also burn-out.  Remember, there were a multitude of games made based on "The Phantom Menace" alone.  When Disney recently announced all those new shows in development, it made me wince a little and be like, "Guys, remember what happened last time?"

The prequels led to an over-saturation of "Star Wars" games during the early-to-mid 2000's.  I happened to be in the middle of working on a game based on "Revenge of the Sith" when I was laid off.  Though I have a lot of fond memories, I also realize some of the decisions they made led to their eventual fall.

7. How did you end up working at Cranky Pants Games?

About 80 to 90 people were laid off from LucasArts in 2004, including me.  Fortunately, a colleague of mine told me about a small studio in Seattle called Cranky Pants Games that was hiring.  At the time, they were working on "Evil Dead Regeneration" and I joined the team a little way into that game's development.

8. Compared to previous "Evil Dead" games, "Evil Dead Regeneration" is a streamlined, action-focused experience.  How did the team tackle combat in the game?

There were two teams, one focused on the combat, and the other was trying to figure out the mechanics behind the sidekick.  By the time I joined, they had the combat working and it was a really good fighting system, but it needed depth.

I suggested the idea of a rage mechanic for Ash that would boost his damage.  As for the sidekick, they were trying to figure out how he could help out Ash during combat.  There was a bit in the game where you kick him into an object, and it results in a gag.  I thought it would be better to take that and expand upon it.

For escorting, I thought that since he's undead, the player shouldn't have to worry about if he dies or not.  If he dies or gets too far from Ash, he immediately teleports back to him.

9. Were there any ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Originally, Ash's car, the Delta, was its own mechanic.  The player was able to drive it around and outfit it with weapons like in "Army of Darkness."  But it and all vehicle-related sections were cut.

The bosses were also scaled back.  We initially planned on them being elaborate encounters, but due to time constraints, we simplified them and relegated them to end-stage fights when Ash and Sam find a portal.

Also, the game was originally called "Evil Dead: Shocked and Reloaded," to reflect how Ash was in an asylum and being treated with shock therapy, but it got changed to the more generic "Evil Dead Regeneration."

Overall, it was a fun project, and it was great working with Bruce Campbell and Ted Raimi.

"Evil Dead Regeneration" is regarded by "Evil Dead" fans as the best of the "Evil Dead" games.

10. Were there plans for a sequel?

We intentionally left it open-ended.  The films did it, so we figured we would do it as well.  After we finished "Evil Dead," there were talks of the team doing either a "Sopranos" game or a game based on the Showtime series "Rome."

We did some prototyping for the "Sopranos" one; fortunately we didn't end up making it.

11. How did Cranky Pants learn they would be developing the next "Destroy All Humans?"

Pandemic was the developer of the first two games.  When the studio began asking more from THQ regarding money and things of that nature, the publisher decided to take the series and hand it to one of their internal teams, in this case, Cranky Pants.

Because we weren't able to contact Pandemic, it meant we couldn't ask for access to their coding for the games or receive help from their designers or writers.

12. I understand "Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon" was a hassle to develop.  What challenges did the team face?

A lot.  Once we figured out we were making the next game, we started to figure out whether to set the game in the 70's or skip a decade and set it in the 80's.  The 80's was more recognizable and easier to spoof, whereas the 70's wasn't.

We settled on the 70's and the idea of lampooning kung-fu movies.  This led to a lot of concern amongst many staff members that some of the humor might come off as racist, and it took a lot of convincing to sell them on this idea.

We hired two writers whose background included a lot of television work for shows like "SpongeBob."  However, their writing style pulled no punches, so when it came to things like the Hong Kong and Paris levels, a lot of the humor involved stereotypes, plus we were hiring white actors to do Asian voices, which didn't help matters.

Because we didn't have access to the original coding, we had to design everything from scratch with Unreal.  You have to remember, Unreal Engine wasn't made to handle open-world games, it was for linear stuff like "Batman: Arkham Asylum," so we had to figure out how to get it to handle things like open-world gameplay, physics-based destruction, rag doll, multiplayer, etc.

We had contacted Volition about using their destruction system (Geo-Mod) for our game, but at the time, their physics were not meant for a project of our scope and size.

13. Were there ideas that ended up on the cutting room floor?

Many.  We had planned on Crypto visiting more locations than he does in the final game.  The wanted system was initially a 6 to 8 level system that got scaled back to a 4-level one.

We had wanted to do away with Crypto's old weapons and give him a brand-new arsenal, but since THQ wanted consistency, we had to keep the original guns and only give him a handful of new ones.  It's a shame because we did a lot of brainstorming about weapons we'd like to see.

The building destruction was also a lot more dynamic.  Some buildings would do what I like to call a "pancake implosion," but it got taken out of the final game.

14. Would you say "Path of the Furon" was the most difficult game you worked on?

Yes.  While there were a few highlights, like the UFO combat, the project was more difficult than anticipated, due to a lot of factors I listed above.  The scope was too big for the time and money we had, plus there was the fact THQ wanted it to be a multi-platform title with both single-player and multiplayer content.

The game was never properly finished since most of the studio got laid off in the summer of 2008, with only a small crew of designers, programmers, and producers left to get it out the door.  Not long after I left, I saw a trailer, watched it, and was shocked to see that stuff like rag doll was missing.

We spent a lot of time on rag doll since things like using Crypto's mental powers or weapons needed to make an impact, but now humans just flailed around or T-posed when thrown or electrocuted.

It was the most difficult project I worked on, but it was also a learning experience.

"Destroy All Humans: Path of the Furon" released to negative reviews and poor sales.  Knoles said that the game was a learning experience and a reminder that not every project a person works on turns out to be a success.

15. How did you end up working at Microsoft?

After I was laid off, I ended up at a studio called Nihilistic Software (now called instigate Games, ed.) and spent a couple of years working there.  I did work on a downloadable title called "Zombie Apocalypse" and spent a lot of time prototyping stuff for the PS Vita.

We were initially approached by Sony to do an "Uncharted" game for the system, which got us really excited and had us thinking about what we could do, but instead we ended up working on a "Resistance" game for the Vita.

Yet, the job required me to spend two hours commuting from home to work, and I got tired of the constant driving back and forth, so I left.  A former colleague from Cranky Pants mentioned Microsoft was hiring, so I returned to Seattle and since then have been the design director on most of the "Forza" games.

16. You've been the design director on every "Forza" game for almost 10 years now, what's the experience been like?

It's actually been over a decade now, and it's been a terrific experience.  Turn 10 Studios, developers of the "Forza Motorsport" series, and PlayGround Games, developers of the "Forza Horizon" series, are both world class studios filled with talented and passionate people I'm lucky to be surrounded by.

I've also learned a great deal about what it means to achieve quality, starting with the the critical design decisions early on that achieve success.  The end result are games that showcase a shared commitment to creativity, collaboration, innovation, and putting the player at the center of everything we do.

17. What aspect of creating a game do you enjoy the most?

The conceptual phase when everyone is coming up with and collaborating on ideas to help shape the game.  As development progresses, many of those ideas might not make it, so when the vision is alive and well even in the final product, then you know you've made a satisfying game.

18. Who came up with the idea to have a challenge where you race a train in "Forza Horizon 2?"

I assume you're referring to Showcase Events.  In previous "Forza" games, there were background elements like trains, planes, and boats to give the environments life.  When we were working on "Forza Horizon 2," an idea sprung up to have the player race against such vehicles.

This led to the creation of Showcase Events.  We had to make sure we didn't go too crazy with the in-game scenarios, but we're proud of how they turned out.

"Forza Horizon 4," the most recent entry in the "Forza" franchise, is the highest-selling game in the series to date.  It reached 10 million players in 2019, nearly a year after its release.

19. What do you do when you hit a creative roadblock?

I take a break and do something like go on a walk to clear my mind and figure out what to do next, or I ask someone else to help figure out the next step.

When I directed "Star Wars: Bounty Hunter," I isolated myself for two weeks to write the story and determine what I wanted to do with that game.

20. How have things changed in the gaming industry since you started?

Team size and team dynamic has changed.  In the old days, it took five to ten people to make a game, so it was easier to bounce ideas off one another and maintain a strong creative focus.  Now, teams consist of over 100 people, all of whom are counting on you to ensure everyone stays on track.

Budgets have gotten bigger.  At the start of the 2000's, games only costed a few million to make, but now they require millions of dollars to make, market, and ship, but the accessibility of technology means that while games are more expensive to produce, they are easier to develop because the technology is easier to work with.

21. You've been in the industry for 30 years now.  Are you surprised by how long you've been in the business?

Definitely.  30 years is a long time to be in game development, and I've worked on more than 30 games in that time.  Some great, some not so great, and one bona-fide flop.  But I've learned from each of them and have had the privilege of being part of some talented teams.

22. If you weren't making games, what do you think you'd be doing?

I would have remained an artist.  As time progressed, I stopped drawing because I became more involved with game development.  If I hadn't become a designer, I would have continued to pursue being an artist.

23. What advice would you give to those looking to pursue a career in game design?

Great games start with great game design, which is less about coming up with great ideas and more about turning a hundred great ideas into ten that make sense, and which a team can fully develop to quality.  As with other disciplines, game design is also increasingly specialized today.

There are designers who focus on narrative, gameplay mechanics, player experience, world building, etc.  For anyone interested in game design, think of the games you are most passionate about, and try to understand the craft behind it.

When you play, take the time to analyze and deconstruct it.  What do you think the designers intended?  Write down what you think the key experience pillars or big ideas were.  Things like, "what design problem were they trying to solve by this feature or mechanic?  Were they successful?  Why or why not?

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