Blue and Levelord Get Drunk!
Blue: I want to ask you about that. I'd be lying if it didn't seem like your recent .plan update about Sin going gold didn't display a certain degree of...burn out is not a fair word...is it burn out?
Levelord: Well, imagine...you can appreciate this, I'm with an office full of twenty year olds. And they keep just going, and going, and going...and so naturally for someone like me, the next logical step is just to do something like the Romero.
Blue: To become the 'designer' of the game?
Levelord: I just want to do a couple of levels, and let them all do the rest of the...well, when you see Sin, I guarantee you, most of the cool stuff will not be mine.
Blue: This is just continuing the trend of you being one of the most modest people ever to name themselves something like "Levelord".
Levelord: It kills me to say that...I hide it well, but it kills me to say that.
Blue: Are you modest, or are you an egotist? You named yourself Levelord, didn't you?
Levelord: Yeah, oh yeah.
Blue: That wasn't like people saw your levels and said, 'this guy is the lord of levels.'
Levelord: No...that was way back with Blood before I had even gotten hired to do Duke Nukem...but it just sounded cool.
Blue: It does sound cool. But I think it sounds cool because...you don't come across that way. It seems sort of surprising that you would name yourself that.
Levelord: Well, the word "lord" itself, it's not like 'almighty,' it's not like 'god,' it's 'lord'. It's high stature, but not...too high.
Blue: A humble form of egotism, if you look at it that way.
Levelord: It's funny to me to look at it...egotism for level design...why is that? Think of all the big ego game designers you know, barring a few, that are level designers.
Blue: Why is that? Why is there this megalomaniac egotist thing?
Levelord: I have no idea, there's just some correlation.
Blue: Maybe it has something to do with that being God, creating reality out of nothing kind of thing.
Levelord: It might be, it actually might be. Also, up until now, and now it's not legitimate to say this, but up until now, the level designers really were the 'game designers'. We did everything that brought the game together, we were like the director, the producer, we were in there making everything happen...
Blue: Most first person shooters don't seem to credit 'game designers'. They have level designers, and modelers, and programmers but there's nobody who's like, 'it's my job to make the game itself'.
Levelord: At Ritual, we'll never have a 'game designer'. Because that just takes away the credit from everyone else. Like I said, all the members of Ritual, they have a lot of input into my levels, and it's not fair to have some producer or game designer say, "I made this game." No you didn't, we did.
Blue: There's no hope for talentless schmoes like myself to come in and grab all the glory?
Levelord: No, perhaps it's just an egotistical title that bothers us. We have a project manager, the person who keeps everyone in place, and tries to keep the project on its feet.
Blue: Well, that implies that the project manager's managing a project, not necessarily that they designed it. They didn't design the project, they're just keeping it on track.
Levelord: Correct. And I think you would really hurt yourself as a company if you had one person, think of it, one person, coming up with all the cool ideas? That couldn't happen.
Blue: Interesting...on one level you can say that it's one person responsible for all the ideas, but then on another level it's one person responsible for the flow and the feel and the continuity. Is it hard, being a collaboration, establishing that continuity?
Levelord: Oh yeah...yes. Not in the game industry, but look at all the great Monty Python skits. If you ever read anything about when they were a group, there were different factions. The ones that came from Oxford, the ones that came from Cambridge, I forget who was who. But they just bitterly fought, and had egos -
Blue: - and it comes across as smart.
Levelord: Yeah, but none of them are worth anything to me. Together...The Beatles, there's just a whole bunch of examples where together they were brilliant, and they just hated each other. I mean we've got some internal conflicts that you wouldn't believe.
Blue: Well, this leads to a segue, you guys started as the pilgrims leaving oppression to conquer the new world -
Levelord: Nah...I feel so bad for that. Actually, it's not like that at all.
Blue: No, but in a sense it was just a bunch of guys who were striking off on their own to do their own thing -
Levelord: - It's egos that wanted to go somewhere else...
Blue: But now, it's like you're revolving doors turned the other way...you've got a lot of guys going out the out door.
Levelord: Most of the guys who left, like Charlie [Brown] and Gary [McTaggart] who left, those were top notch ace programmers, I wondered from the very beginning, why are you here, working for us? Why aren't you out with your own company? Especially programmers. Those are the truly elite. You can get any schmuck to do levels, you can get any schmoe to do art, but it's the programming, the engine programming -
Blue: I know what you're saying...it's a rarefied air, Gary and Charlie are sort of in that Carmack realm of engine programming -
Levelord: So their leaving was to me obvious, and I was upset, and it's like, why did you guys even come here, when you knew that you would go eventually. And why did you play with us like that. And again, a few people have come and gone, but most of it was egos, not fitting in.
Blue: Finding that balance in the collaboration.
Levelord: And [a] recent leaving was Charlie [Wiederhold]...I met him at a Fort-Worth Duke marathon thing about three, four years ago, with these eyes, like 'how can I do levels?' But he's dying to do Duke Nukem...if he gets paid three cents, he'll be happy.
Blue: But that struck me...considering that most of you guys left Apogee/3DRealms, to come to Hipnotic at the time, and now Ritual, and there was definitely...I don't know if it was bad blood, but there was certainly some comments made back and forth between you guys -
Levelord: Well, I still am begrudged at my name being taken off my work. That really to me, is not cool.
Blue: Now, this was for work on Duke 3D?
Levelord: There were four levels in Duke. And one of them was my very best Duke work, and it has someone else's name on it. And to this day, you go out and you buy the CD, and my name is not on it.
Blue: For the record, what are the levels?
Levelord: My favorite one was Pig Sty.
Blue: Pig Sty?
Levelord: Yeah, Pig Sty was my ultimate...and Stacey’s Triple X...and what were the other two? I don't remember now...I don't know the names...don't know if the names have changed.
Blue: So you guys leave Apogee/3DRealms, and there's some angry words back and forth, and now Charlie leaves Ritual to go back there, it's like a 'man bites dog' story.
Levelord: It'll be interesting to see what happens with Charlie over there. Well, I’m sure they've changed over there...when I was with them, they didn't have money, like they do now. They've got tons of money. And a lot of my grumbling was simple ergonomics. My desk, I thought, was a piece of shit. As I looked across at a whole empty office, thinking why am I sitting here at a doorway, with people going back and forth every fucking minute. Breaking my concentration. And little things like that...I had to ask three times, for a ZIP drive, and I never got one. Just so I could take work home to work on the weekends, and I had to go out and buy my own, a $200 ZIP drive. But most of it, I'll be honest, was professional, obviously. I wanted to own my own company.
Blue: So you're one of the owners of Ritual?
Levelord: Yeah, there's seven, and then Beau is another...eight. He's got part ownership. Beau has been there since it started, and he gets everything done before we even ask for it, and he's there seven days a week, so if we see that kind of dedication, well, we want to reward it.
Blue: So it's not a closed deal where if you weren't here at the beginning you can't get in.
Levelord: Right. Especially if it grows. We hope to spread out, especially with the egos. A lot of us want to go different ways, and once we get big enough, we'll be able to have three or four teams, something like Ion Storm. Working on different things, and they'll have a piece of that game that they're working on.
Blue: Now as we go off into this future, does part of it entail this retirement that you dream of?
Levelord: I plan on retiring at 45.
Blue: 45? And you're how old now?
Levelord: 40. I'm going to be 41 next month. So yeah...four or five more years. What I’d love to do is have enough where life is a hobby. Like, do the Romero. And I still miss the east coast...New England. If I had my way, I’d move to like Westchester Country, Greenwich in Connecticut, open up a little shop, and just...like a hobby. I don't care if I make money, I’m just spitting out levels, or whatever it takes.
Blue: A lot of people who get transplanted down here, a lot of northeasterners are not happy about living in Dallas.
Levelord: It's October 31st, and it's 80 degrees down here.
Blue: It's warm. It's damn warm.
|Credits: Illustration © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This interview is © 1998 Stephen Heaslip and Richard Gray. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is totally for squares, daddy-o.|