If you’re a regular Press Democrat or Pressdemocrat.com reader, you may have seen Clark Mason’s recent article about Brian Lee, a Cardinal Newman graduate whose team of college-student video game designers recently split a $100,000 prize for creating the best nonprofessional game for the inaugural Indie Game Challenge. While Clark did a great job of telling us about Brian and his game, “Gear,” I was interested in chatting with him gamer-to-gamer, as well as finding out a bit about what it’s like to go to school to learn how to make video games.

Brian, 23, a Santa Rosa native who’s studying at the DigiPen Institute of Technology outside of Seattle, recently took time to answer a few questions, and was even gracious and forgiving about the fact that it took me forever to send them to him. “Gear,” is a platform-jumping game whose hero can turn his hand into a gear, which he uses to traverse the game’s 10 levels. My questions appear in bold, with Brian’s answers in plain type. In a couple of instances, I added context, using brackets. For more information on “Gear,” or to download the game, visit Brian’s Web site.

Gear_screenshot

While going to school to learn about game design, do you find time to play many other games? What are you currently playing? What are a few of your all-time favorites, and what stood out about them?

I’ve definitely had to wean myself off games during the past couple years since I have so little time to play them. I’ve come very close to buying “Borderlands” a few times recently, but I always stop myself by thinking of how stressed out I am and how getting sucked into a game like “Borderlands” wouldn’t exactly help that situation.

Lately I’ve been playing “Megaman 10,” though my play sessions are usually short due to getting frustrated and quitting. It’s amusing how much better I was at “Megaman” when I was 5 than I am now.

As for my all-time favorites, I’ll have to split them into a few categories.

If it wasn’t obvious enough in “Gear,” I like platform games with innovative new gameplay mechanics. The platformer genre is extremely saturated, so when a game can introduce an innovative and fun new way to play, that’s probably one of my favorite experiences in all of gaming. Some of my favorite innovative 2D platformers that come to mind are “Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island,” “Rocket Knight Adventures,” “Dynamite Headdy” and “Mischief Makers.” Of course the “Super Mario Bros.” series has consistently set the platforming bar high for each generation it has appeared on. I absolutely love “Super Mario Sunshine” and I think it gets a lot of undeserved hate for not being “Mario 64 2.”

A couple of my favorite games with really immersive narratives are “Silent Hill 2” and “Shadow of the Colossus.” Both are games with amazing stories that seem like they would make good movies, but would probably lose a lot in the loss of interactivity. I love the disturbing atmosphere and sense of dread that “Silent Hill” games give without the cheap startle scares common in most other horror games. In “Shadow of the Colossus,” the way the story unfolds through exploration and the impressive battles with the colossi, along with the interactive ending sequence, create an amazing experience from a relatively simple story with very little dialogue.

Finally, I love Konami’s Bemani series of rhythm games, mainly “Beatmania” and “Pop’n Music.” They are basically the hardest of the hardcore Japanese rhythm games and I am hopelessly obsessed with them.

Do you remember the first time you thought you might like to make video games for a living? Was there a particular game or moment that inspired you?

When I was growing up, I saw making games as one of those professions that sounds fun and neat but I could probably never do it, so I never really considered it until much more recently. I saw articles about DigiPen in Nintendo Power and Gamepro when I was very young, but for some reason it didn’t seem like a realistic career path to me.

Much much later in late 2005, I was at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo going for a computer engineering major. I absolutely loved my programming classes, but when focus started shifting to low level electronics and circuit design, I knew I was in the wrong major. It was only then that I made the realization that my interests and skills were perfectly suited for making games. After doing some research, going to the Game Developers Conference, and taking care of some GE credits at SRJC, I was all set and started at DigiPen in 2007.

Did you have a tough time trying to sell your parents on the idea of your making video games for a living? How did it go?

My parents were worried when my grades were slipping at Cal Poly, but after I told them my new plan and showed them all the information about DigiPen, they were very happy that I had found what I really wanted to do and they have been supporting my goal ever since.

What was the first game or game-related thing you made yourself? Have you ever dabbled in mods or user-created content for established games?

I first started messing around with programming in Flash when I was a sophomore in high school in 2002. I didn’t take a programming class until I started college, so everything I knew back then I taught myself using online resources and books. In 2002 I tried to make a top-down “Grand Theft Auto” parody that basically played like “Pac-Man.” My self-taught programming style was extremely hacky and the scope of the project quickly overwhelmed me and I gave up. I made several more attempts at making flash games over the years, but they never amounted to much more than simple interactive toys, due to lack of time, experience, and motivation. I never actually finished what I would consider a full game until my first semester at DigiPen.

As for mods and user-created content, I’ve always had more interest in the technical side of game production than the higher level gameplay and level design side. I consider myself a creative person, but level design just isn’t my thing. I tried designing a couple levels for “Gear,” but they were ridiculously simplistic compared to the final levels our designers created. I much prefer building the systems and mechanics that the level designers can use to work their magic, and that seems to have worked out well for “Gear.”

I took a look on your website and saw that you listed three different games you’ve worked on while you were at Digipen. Was “Gear” the first game you made with a team? If so, what was the transition like from making games on your own to working with four other developers?

Actually, “Super Adventure Hero” is the only game I’ve made while not on a team. “Super Adventure Hero” was my game project for my very first semester at DigiPen. The instructor for the Game 100 class was notoriously harsh, and the focus of the class appeared to be learning by failure. For example, the professor put the complete source code to one of the first programming assignments online, and then failed anyone who copied the code, as a lesson about plagiarism. I feel like the first semester individual game project was partially intended to be a lesson about how making a game on your own is really, really difficult (though I’m proud of what I was able to make).

Throughout the entire curriculum, DigiPen puts a big emphasis on teamwork, with a majority of classes having a group project of some sort. From my numerous group projects at DigiPen, working on a team has become second nature for me and most other students, too. The computer labs really feel like a workplace environment, with individuals and teams always collaborating and having meetings. I feel like I am being very well prepared for working on a real project in the industry.

If you could pick a “dream” franchise to work on, what would you pick and why?

People ask me this a lot and the more I think about it the more I realize that I wouldn’t want to work on a game or franchise that I love. I know from experience that working on a game can ruin it for you. Countless hours of testing and debugging a game can kind of take the fun out of it eventually. I have a lot of respect for the developers of my favorite games and I’m content with letting them do their thing and remaining on the consumer side for those games. Personally, I’d like to work on something new, exciting, and inspiring for me. However, I guess I wouldn’t mind working on a “Megaman 9”-style retro revival or contributing music to a Konami music game.

“Gear” seems like the kind of game that might find its way to the indie games channel on Xbox Live, or to a service like WiiWare or DSiware. As a student of game development, do you feel like these download-based game distrubtion channels for consoles and handhelds
are open to aspiring designers, or is work like yours still more likely to call the PC home? Have you or any of your friends tried
programming anything for these? Does Digipen encourage it?

Xbox indie games channel is definitely accessible for student developers, as it only requires a PC, an Xbox 360, and an XNA Creators Club membership. Wii/DSiware are tougher due to Nintendo’s rigorous approval process and the need for development kits for the hardware. I definitely think digital distribution platforms are a great way for aspiring developers to get noticed and break into the market. I know a couple people who have released moderately successful Xbox indie and iPhone games, and DigiPen professors are definitely encouraging developing for these platforms mainly as a way to make a good portfolio piece for yourself that might actually take off and earn you some money.

I’m interested in hearing about what it was like to win at the DICE summit. Was there much of an audience? How was the award presented? Were you all there to receive it?

The awards ceremony was relatively small and laid-back. It happened after the last official event of the DICE summit so many attendees had to leave and catch flights. Overall I’d say that there were around 100-150 people at the awards ceremony, though I’m really bad at estimating that sort of thing.

Most of the people present seemed to be directly involved with the competition, though there were a number of important industry people in attendance as well (Richard Lemarchand from [“Uncharted” developers] Naughty Dog was sitting at our table). The ceremony itself was very laid-back, and designed to make all the finalist games look good. A video of each finalist game was presented by Adam Sessler from G4, followed by a brief interview with each team leader. After “Gear’s” video was shown and [producer/programmer] Joshua Maiche was being called up on stage, Adam casually added that “Gear” was the non-professional grand prize winner.

The whole team was called up on stage for a photo op (everyone on the team was able to fly out to Las Vegas for the ceremony) before Joshua continued with the interview. The whole thing was so sudden and surreal and took a couple days to fully sink in.

What else did you do at DICE? Do you get to attend a lot of stuff like this? Has it given you chances to meet some professional developers whose work you really admire?

I’ve been to GDC [Game Developers Conference] twice, so I’m used to seeing game industry celebrities giving talks and perhaps even awkwardly approaching them in the hall, but DICE was entirely different. The attendance is much smaller and everyone there was important. Best of all, however, was that almost everyone was at ease and approachable, since they didn’t have to be paranoid about being hounded by gamers and students like they would at GDC.

Some people were caught off guard when I approached them and talked to them, but they usually warmed up when I explained that I was one of the IGC finalists. One of the highlights for me was getting to meet David Crane, the creator of “Pitfall,” at one of the evening parties during DICE. Having a casual conversation with the man who essentially created the platform genre was a pretty big moment for me. Stepping into an elevator with Richard Garriott [creator of “Ultima,” though that’s kind of giving him short shrift] was also kind of cool.

Aside from being starstruck at DICE, all of the other IGC finalists who probably felt equally out of place were also very nice. There was an overall feeling of camaraderie among the finalists and the IGC organizers did a great job of making everyone feel like winners, so there was very little competitive tension before or after the awards.

Other than the awards ceremonies and parties, there were a variety of talks by industry professionals that were quite interesting, but seemed to be focused more on the business of games. Attending talks and panels at GDC would definitely be more valuable for a game programmer, but the networking opportunities at DICE were the most valuable part in the end.