A Day in the Life of a Senior Designer

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Super Huge Part 1 of 1, by David Feltham

8.35am Kids were good this morning and I’m arriving at a decent point. I’ll be able to test my level and get the Lead Designer (Preston) and Lead Level Designer (Dusty) to play it and give me feedback so I can incorporate it before Thursday’s review
8.45am Brazilian Priscila in the French Press. Fantastic coffee.
8.46am Ivan, one of the QA for our scrum, has tendinitis and has his entire left hand in a splint! Oh noes!
8.50am Looks like my build failed: Yesterday I got a 3-red ring on my devkit and had to get a new one: forgot to update the IP address on my auto update. Time to cook over the opening level so I can work!
8.55am Time to drink some coffee and peruse my iGoogle. Yesterday not much happened. Perhaps there’s some new articles up now.

9.01am Oh Fail Blog. How you amuse me.
9.15am Can’t get The Depression Suite by Tragically Hip out of my head. Time to find something to listen to on my Zune…maybe some Opeth.
9.17am Can’t. Stop. Listening. To this album: Tragically Hip: We Are the Same.
9.22am Reading HR emails. Reading an email about our E3 build.
9.40am Just got into a long discussion about the wins and fails of X-men Origins: Wolverine: Uncaged, the game. I’ve finished the game and I’m right now inches away from getting 2 major achievements. Even though I don’t want to play anymore, I keep playing. The gamerscore is too luring!
9.43am Time for Design Standup. This is where all designers on Mass Effect (44!) meet with Preston in one giant meeting. Preston goes around the table (twice, now that we’re big) and each designer says what level they’re working on that day. It gives Preston, who’s wrapped up in the high-level of the game and in meetings, an idea what people are working on, and gives him the opportunity to comment on things that need to be commented on. It helps Cinematic Designers know if their Level Designer is available to them, and lets the entire group know what levels are being reviewed in what is called a Daily. It also allows me to make fun of anyone wearing the same Jade Empire, Mass Effect or Dragon Age shirts.

me2sample10.00am Kris tells me a story about the Art Director (Derek Watts) and one of the designers talking about the need for cover in the middle of a walkway. While it gives the player cover, it doesn’t make much sense to the environment. So Derek, as a joke, grabs a garbage can, places it in the middle of the room and says ‘Look at me! I’m a designer putting placeables in the level!’ HAHAHA. It definitely is a balance between the two: great gameplay but in a world that makes sense.
10.10am Just finished my playthrough (my cook finished while I was in the Design Standup) and everything looks good (enough) for review by the Leads. I say ‘enough’ because I have another 2 sprints to do get my level almost completed…and I’m never satisfied with my work. But I have a working, fun level that has everything that needs to be in there for Level Review. Time to IM the bosses.
10.13am Sent
10.15am Scrum standup. This is where our Scrum, or dogpile, gets together with our producer (Nathan Plewes) and any floater writers or cinematic designers that are working on our dogpile’s levels that day, and we do a quick round where everyone says what they’re working on, what they worked on yesterday and any major issues that might need to be resolved with the help of Nathan.
10.30am Finished Scrum standup which lengthened into a conversation about what’s left on our levels for the rest of the game. We seem to be doing pretty good!
10.42am New cup of coffee and I’m reading an interview with Mike Laidlaw, Lead Designer on Dragon Age and a good good friend.
10.43am Just got an IM from Preston, our Lead Designer, that he’ll be here in 10 to play [Rescinded]. Huzzah!
10.47am Cleaning up pathnodes and rebuilding paths. Then I’ll do a last minute visual pass to make sure my henchmen and enemies can maneuver.
10.49am Just got an IM from Rohan Knuckey, the Level Artist for [Rescinded] the level I’m working on, that he has some geometry updates for me. I’ll update those right after my playthru with the bosses.
10.49am So do I get nervous about these playthroughs? Not really: I’m not the get nervous kind of guy. I am anxious and hoping that they like what they’ve done, and that it won’t break during their playthrough. But honestly anything they have to say about what needs to be done, especially on this very important level, is stuff that needs to be done: Dusty and Preston have you, the player, in mind with all of their feedback. If they say it won’t be fun, or doesn’t flow nice, then that’s something I need to address. Besides, I still have many weeks left on the project and I’d be a fool into thinking that this is the last iteration of this level.
10.57am Really digging the new Prodigy.

mesample211.11am a quick playthrough by Preston and its hard to say what he’s thinking: he found some bugs which I’m going to fix right now, but he didn’t say yay or nay. Experience says that he’s got something of higher issue on his mind and that the level met his expectations. The stage that my level is in, Orange, can be a very ambiguos stage: it doesn’t have the spit and polished of a Hardened Level, and it isn’t the rough level full of promise that is a Narrative Playable or Whitebox.
11.13am Time to fix some bugs.
11.19am And updating to new art.
11.19am And new doors! Huzzah! And holy god does the level look amazing. Some of the updates in lighting and textures have just brought so much life and atmosphere to the level.
11.50am Fixed some bugs that Preston found (list them)

12.10pm Heading out to the local grocery store to get lunch. Let’s hope its not too hot outside, I wore combat boots and black jeans
12.35pm Holy crap its hot outside! Bad day to wear combat boots and black jeans. Going to read some online articles while I eat. Another lunch at the desk.
1pm Lunch complete. Achievement unlocked.

1.17pm Desperate for another coffee, but the impending heartburn says to wait. And wait I shall. Onto bugs!
1.24pm Time to learn about action stations: these will be the first I’ve put in our game.
1.48pm Learn something new every day: Found out about our tools to set animations on pawns, and seeing as how I’m setting up [rescinded], this will be great!

2.45pm Just came from a meeting about Skeletal Meshes and You. Learned many things today, but sadly was starting to fall asleep. Need more sleep. Badly. These Skeletal Meshes allow us to place down low-detail pawns in the level to help flesh out the world. Like Dead Bodies.
2.55pmFeel like some Jeff Buckley, Last Goodbye. Time to start tweaking the last battle in [rescinded]. Need to make it a nice cap on everything that has happened in the level so far.

3.04pm Well…that put me in a mood. Time for some Tool.
3.19pm Taking a section of my level and pimping the shit out of it with the new Skeletal Meshes, Visual FX and Level Events, like animations in the background, so the level Artist and the bigwigs can get an idea of where I’m going with the ambience.

4.00pmGot some interesting stuff. Just put in the new doors and they look snazzy.
4.20pm Had a discussion with Dusty and Shawn Potter (combat programmer) on creating a new kismet object to tighten up my level scripting. Think its a go. Should see it in a few days.
4.47pm Just wrapping up some last minute scripting so I can do a last minute playthrough to ensure my level is fine for tomorrow’s build. A build is a compile of content and code done daily to ensure everyone is up to date with the latest verified code and the latest content. It automatically happens on everyone’s computer every night.
4.54pm Waiting on the cook.

5.06pm Oops. Forgot to set a pawn to ambient. recook
5.20pm Playthrough works. Found some bugs that I’ll address tomorrow: level is playable for the morning and for the level review tomorrow. Thank-you and goodnight.

Banner image taken from Steampunk Lab

Dave Feltham, who hails from Toronto, is a Senior Designer on Mass Effect 2. He doesn’t like to think about the number of days multiplied by the 9 years he has in the game industry, never mind the 3 before that in the TV industry. He has done broadcast design work for many major TV networks and has released games for the launch of every new-generation console since Microsoft’s Xbox. He giddily walked through BioWare’s doors 2 years ago and still can’t believe he works here. He likes coffee. A lot. He’s drinking one right now.