Zork Grand Inquisitor
Welcome readers to the first installment of the Designer Diary on the new adventure game, Zork Grand Inquisitor.
I am Laird Malamed, the Director of the game. I was Technical Director on Zork Nemesis and before that a Sound Editor on television shows and feature films (The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, Quiz Show, Clear and Present Danger, among others).
I am sure some of you are wondering what a director does on a computer game. The short answer is that I make decisions about what goes in the game, what the style of the artwork is, and how the story and gameplay unfold. Directing an adventure game is very similar to directing a film, except that motion picture technology has stayed relatively unchanged for 75 years. Computer technology changes basically twice a year.
Probably the best way to understand what I do is to join me on a typical day, so grab your Brass Lanterns and Elvish Swords* and join me at 6:40 AM.
(*For those of you new to the Zork series, the Brass Lantern and Elvish Sword are items from the first Zork Text Adventure, which started in 1979. No adventurer in the Great Underground Empire would dare travel without a trusty light source or a magical sword that glows blue at the sign of impending danger.)
6:40 AM: Alarm goes off. Time to get up and help get my kid ready for school. What's this have to do with making a game? Well, in between cereal and lunch packing, I am on the computer checking e-mail and preparing for my day of meetings. I am also thinking through design and art issues from the day before.
When I first started the game, it was summer and Justin was in camp, so I got to sleep later. Of course, even if I did not take carpool, I would still be up early since there is a team of nine other people who are making the game along with me. Back in the beginning it was just me, dreaming up story ideas and puzzles. Of course, I was the only one also doing the budget, schedule, art direction, sound plans, contract negotiations and writing the weekly report for upper management. Getting up early is a pleasure compared to doing all those jobs!
7:45 AM: We're in the car off to pick up carpool. One of the kids mentions a problem they had with a new computer and installing a new game. I wonder if we would have the same problem, so I make a note to mention it to our Lead Programmer, Mike Douglas (who worked on MechWarrior 2 and Zork Nemesis).
9:30 AM: The Team usually gets in between 10 and 11, so only the Producer, Elizabeth Storz (Producer of Cyberia 1 & 2, among other games) and I are in yet. She runs down the list of priorities for me. Elizabeth's job is to keep us on time and on budget. She also charges fines for being late to meetings. Since she started in early February, my ability to be on time has greatly improved. This morning's big priority is file lists.
A file list is a spreadsheet of assets needed for the game. Basically, I read through our design document which details the gameplay and look at our sketches which conceptualize the visuals of the game and determine what we need to render to make the game navigable and puzzles solvable. This amounts to creating file names that match a strict naming convention, adding a short description, and then making an annotated overhead map so the artists know where everything goes.
Ok, fire up Excel...
10:02 AM: Margie Stohl, Lead Designer, and Matt Harding, Assistant Designer, bound in. Looks like we have a problem with the GUE Tech section of the game. Last week we had to delete (cut) an environment to lower our art budget. Well, in doing that, we also messed up an area we are keeping because it was dependent on the area we cut. We go over the possible fixes and brainstorm out the problem.
10:37 AM: OK, we have a solution. Matt and Margie disappear to write it up, and I turn back to the file list, but not for long.
E-mail arrives with new artwork for me to review. It's marked "urgent" because an animator is standing by to make changes, but he needs my feedback. I open the files and stare at the screen. Looks pretty good, but needs some work. I check the design document and see that an item needs to be moved for gameplay reasons. Also, part of the room doesn't match the sketch and color painting we made during development - that will have to be fixed. I jot my notes and shoot off a reply, again via e-mail to the artist. Tomorrow I will meet the artist in person to make sure the art is on track. It's 55 miles each way and I do it once a week. Thank goodness for cellular phones, multi-CD changers, and books on tape.
11:11 AM: I don't even get back into Excel or the file list before Yasmin Salas pops in with some video tapes for me to look at. We are searching for a director of photography for the live action portion of Zork Grand Inquisitor. I watch six tapes and pick the two that show promise. Yas disappears to set up interviews.
11:56 AM: Stomach's already grumbling, but first the file list. Let's see, US10S012.tga, that's the surround image near the...
12:09 PM: My stomach won't quit, so I am off to the market to pick up some food for a nice lunch at my desk.
12:38 PM: Got the food. As I'm getting back to work on the file lists I am attacked by Mike Radiloff, our marketing product manager, and Eric Johnson, VP of Marketing. My Elvish Sword begins to glow brightly, knowing danger is in the air. Indeed it is, as the head of the company has rejected our first advertisement concepts for the product. We have about 12 minutes to come up with something else because we are sending out a big two-page ad in three days.
12:50 PM: Mike is replaced by David Ghys, our assets manager. Looks like we are having server problems, again. He begs me to call the head of MIS to complain, which I do. I am assured they are working on it. Of course, by now, it's...
1:07 PM: ...and I am late for our team meeting. Elizabeth promptly collects my late fine (proceeds will go to a team event sometime at the end of the project), and we go over the priorities for the team. Guess what mine is. Nobody even believes that I have Excel open on my desktop.
2:00 PM: We are in the sound room meeting about Qsound. It's Joanne Blum, who's overseeing sound for us, Michael Schwartz, and me going over possible sound houses to complete the work on ZGI.
3:05 PM: Time for Elizabeth and me to meet with our boss, Alan Gershenfeld. We bring him up-to-date on the status of the project. He makes some suggestions and promises to help us with our server problems by talking to the head of MIS as well. It's a short meeting, so we are out in 42 minutes. Elizabeth is about to say something to me, but I cut her off. "I know, file lists...." She nods in agreement.
3:58 PM: Back in my office, and the phone rings. It's Mason Deming, my lead scriptor (who is sitting about 15 feet from me). He has been programming the first room of the game and has questions. We agree to meet at his desk in ten minutes to go over the issues.
5:30 PM: Well that took longer than I thought. But, we solved the problems, and the beginning of the game is looking pretty good. The phone is quiet, there is no urgent e-mail message, and I stare at the screen about to return to the file list. Then the computer crashes.
Nothing major, however, and in no time I am actually working on the file list. Two hours later I am done. I upload the file to our FTP site and send an e-mail to the artist house that it is there for them to download.
The phone rings, and it's Greg Pyros at our art house. He wonders when I was going to send that file list. But before I can answer, the e-mail appears on his desk. He thanks me and hangs up. I said a total of five words.
7:45 PM: I check the Usenet groups and answer some of the postings. The team is beginning to head home, and I join them.
8:45 PM: My wife looks up as I enter. "Short day," she says with a smile. "I brought work home with me. I have to write a diary of my day for GameSpot, but I think I'll play a computer game first," I reply.
11:00 PM: After losing miserably in Quake Mission Pack 1 (I play other things besides adventure games), I am now writing what you are reading. It all starts over tomorrow.
And I love it.
'Til next time, keep playing (and doing your file lists).