Two for the price of one this week folks! Adrian got chatting to Olly Johnson and Iain Smith who’ve been working on killer Codemasters and Rockstar titles since the early 2000s (Iain now works for Natural Motion). They also host a rather splendid podcast called Guys on Film which I strongly suggest you check out if you’re into movies and such. It’s a pleasure to have them here on our humble blog, here is what they think about games and such. Take it away gents…
How did both get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first games you worked on?
Olly: I had been doing music production courses and to be honest I started getting more into sound design than music, the culprit was Silent Hill 2, I couldn’t believe how the audio just made the game feel like an absolute living nightmare.
So, I heard about a junior position that had come available at Codies and went for it, even though I had a distinct lack of games experience, they took a chance on me and it really paid off. Sixteen years later I still love the place and I still make a massive difference to whatever I work on.
My very first day on the job I was out in Northamptonshire helping record Colin McRae’s Ford Focus, it was an incredible day 1 as you could imagine.
Iain: I had been at a Motorhead gig when I was about 17, and was killing time at my sister’s office before getting the bus back from Glasgow to the highlands, and my sister’s work friend asked me what I was planning to do in uni, and I was still a bit stuck. After asking if I was into games she helped set up a chat with somebody. They just happened to be the studio director at Rockstar North. So it was a bit crazy to be a daft teenager in this amazing office in one of the biggest games companies in the world, asking what in retrospect were totally untactful questions about salary. After that I worked there twice, on Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories and GTA: IV, and then I studied games at university in Abertay. Through all that I was working in the industry in lots of places, and afterwards I got my role with Olly at Codemasters.
We are big fans of Codemasters here at Arcade Attack. Can you reveal what it is like doing audio design work for this iconic company and were you fans of their back catalogue before you joined them?
Olly: I’ve always been a massive fan. One of the first games I bought with my own money was Micro Machines V3 on the PS1, I absolutely played it to death. Before I joined, I started getting into the TOCA series on the PS2, but truthfully I have never been that good at racing games unless it’s an arcade style game like Burnout, which is ideal as the game I am working on right now is very much an over the top arcade game, so I absolutely love it.
I work on all of our titles so I do jump around from project to project so my time there is varied. It’s great place to work, there’s a lot of value on creativity, taking risks, making sure we take time to add the flourishes to our titles that people have come to expect.
People at Codies are real motorsport enthusiasts, so we want to represent it in the best way possible.
If you could bring back one Codies game what would it be?
Olly: I’m a big fan of games like Dave Mirra or Tony Hawk so I would say it would have to be BMX Simulator. I’d be well up for that.
What does a typical day involve and what are the most important skills for this role?
Olly: An average day for me would be working very closely with the game designers to figure out the best way to add dialogue to the game, I then see where there’s room for something creative or something new. Then it’s a case of writing the scripts until everything is covered, hiring the best voice artists, and then the exciting process of hearing your words in the game.
I’ve worked on everything from racing to horror, and dialogue can really improve a game if done right. We spend a lot of time tweaking it so it doesn’t become an annoyance. I do try and record most of the speech myself before the proper actors get involved as the process of implementing dialogue can take a while, and having my placeholder voice in there allows us to get a head start on ironing out any issues. Plus, when the final voices go in there is a massive quality boost for our testers that have grown tired of hearing my voice.
For dialogue production I really think you need to have a good grasp of game design first and foremost as you are writing for a game, not a film. By that I mean it’s non linear, so you have to think about how the dialogue can expand or take turns depending on the choices made by the player. In a racing game, to have a level of believable speech, you have to try and cover all the potential outcomes of a race, all the on track action that could happen, and all the while try to not condescend the player. If they have crashed then you don’t need to tell them….they already know. Filling in the blanks is where I focus my work.
I think you need to be encyclopedic when it comes to game knowledge, really be able to pick apart games as to why a certain aspect of a games speech doesn’t work for you, then try to avoid doing that in your own writing and implementation.
As a newer media, it’s on us to improve the perception of games and try to move them away from some of the things the industry at large has been guilty of, like treating the player like a dummy and being too keen to do a whole bunch of hand holding. Games also have a way of telling a story that no other media can get close to, and even in a racing game, we can make sure we are providing gamers with something well written, so they don’t instantly want to mute it.
Iain, you worked as a QA Tester at the legendary Rockstar Games. What did that role exactly involve and can you share what games you worked on?
Iain: So I was working on Vice City Stories and GTA:IV. Initially on Vice City Stories, I was a focus tester, which means I basically played it as a sample player, giving audience feedback – this is cool, I like that, this doesn’t make sense, which is highly useful to developers to get a temperature of how their game will be received. But I was really specific and pedantic about the feedback, which is great for testing, because knowing every detail about bugs and issues is vital to the developers knowing how to fix things.
So they kept me on to become a contract tester. As a tester, you “play games all day” – the classic cliche I get from non-industry people, because it must be fun all the time! But it’s really hard work; you comb through areas of the game finding issues, recording with precision exactly the steps you took to find the problem, and then reporting on them and checking them when the developer has fixed them. When I went to uni afterwards, there was a bit of arrogance in the students there about QA, not thinking it’s important. Having been in games for about 8 or 9 years now, I can’t state strongly enough how important QA is. It’s seen as a stepping stone, and it was for me moving into Production. But, as a Senior Producer now, I rely extremely heavily on the hard work and diligence of the QA team. They are a key source of information – is the game performance good enough, or is the frame rate dropping? Do all of the analytics fire properly and report the data we want? If we don’t have confidence in those things, we can’t release games.
How does QA differ when working on an AAA title game compared to small mobile games such as your time working for Natural Motion Mobile Games?
Iain: So, I now work as a Senior Producer, which is a completely different role to QA. I organise the whole team and our goals and the various aspects of our project. Our whole team on Dawn of Titans is around 50 or 60, but I have two feature teams of around 8 which I manage. QA play an important role in that – but it’d be wrong to think of mobile games as “small”. Some can be, but even small-scope puzzle games on mobile are highly sophisticated in the way they process user inputs and return different outcomes based on behaviours. Natural Motion aims to be console quality on mobile. Our games are 3D and push the limits of what’s possible technically on the platform. And Dawn of Titans is a big and complex game. So a lot of the challenges our team faces are similar to those on console. The difference I suppose is that with mobile, you generally release updates very regularly – always providing new content and running events, where console has gone far with this model, it still hasn’t fully transitioned from the approach of working over a long period hard to ultimately sell a one-off, game on a disk.
Olly: Iain often starts sentences off with “so”. Fun fact.
So… Out of all the games you have both worked on, which title are you most proud of and why?
Olly: My first game as an Audio Lead, with a team of sound designers was Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, we put so much subtlety into the sound design that I’m really proud of both Dragon Rising and Red River.
Couple of things to listen for are; the time delay between seeing a distant explosion and hearing it, all calculated in real time based on distance, drastically different audio characteristics between shooting a weapon in an open environment and an enclosed one, engine cooling sounds when you had been driving for a while then get out, little touches that we didn’t need to do but I feel really made a massive difference compared to similar games at the time.
If we catch up again next year I can tell you about the unique approach to speech we are taking with our latest game! (we look forward to it! Ed)
Iain: I’m probably most proud of GRID 2, which we both worked on at Codies. Of the games I’ve worked on, it’s probably the first where I had a strong level of input in the creative direction of it. I was involved in writing some of the character and story stuff along with Olly, who created all of the dialogue and recorded the actors. I also worked with the principle designer on the main narrative elements, which were video vignettes I went to ESPN in Connecticut to record in their SportsCenter studios, which was very cool. They managed to take a relatively high concept for a racing game and make it feel real because it was being reported by a real TV channel.
You both previously touched on it but how exactly did you two meet and did you instantly become good friends?
Olly: I had the opportunity after many years of being a sound designer, to move into a dream role for me of dialogue production. This meant I moved from my own office and out onto the shop floor. Iain was my Producer, so he dealt with a lot of the scheduling for the recording sessions for GRID 2 out in LA, which was an amazing trip, I met my hero Joey Belladonna from Anthrax at the hotel I was staying at.
Over the months I think we just started having cups of teas with a regular gang and we both shared a common love of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, Mastodon, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. After GRID 2 had sailed, Iain and I joined forces on a studio wide GameJam, we decided to expand the role of GRID 2 racing entrepreneur Patrick Callahan into a Chase HQ- style endless racer called Super Race Driver: Origins, complete with Metal Gear- style comms cut scenes, brilliant dialogue, omnipresent biker gangs, and a flaming Ravenwest logo as a boss.
It’s probably our best work. We then spent most days coming up with new adventures for Patrick Callahan, including a second GameJam effort in the style of Operation Wolf, called Callahan: TimeKnife, this was a much bigger production and focussed on time travel where you could essentially “take cover” in ancient Egypt when the going got tough in a present day shootout.
Iain: I still don’t know if I’ve truly met Olly.
Ha ha! On to podcasting then. You’ve just completed over a year of the excellent Guys on Film podcast. Can you give our readers a bit of background information on it and why it may be worth a listen?
Iain: So it’s just chaps chatting film, but unlike a lot of the mainstream podcasts on film, we’re keen to take the Michael, have a laugh and not take ourselves too seriously. We have a pretty standard format now. It’s all based around the Deep Dive – which is a big chat about that week’s subject. Before we get to that, we do Lifescores, where we check in on each other to see how our lives are going out of 10, and find out what movie-watching we’ve been doing. And in Seggy One, right at the start, we do different things each week. Some recurring segments like Wrong, Dead Wrong quizzes, or Elevator Pitch where we throw ideas at one another to green light. We like to keep it varied, but in a straightforward digestible structure.
Olly: There are a lot of recurring jokes, we use the Christopher Walken “WOW” sample when either one of us gets over enthusiastic about something we have seen. My current thing is the “two part question” for Iain, that essentially puts him in a multiple choice situation with Owen Wilson. We’ve got great jingles, we get some really interesting guests, and we just bloody enjoy doing it.
I have to ask, why did you create a podcast on films and not games?
Iain: Like Olly pointed out, I think working in games, the things you find in common with colleagues are your interests out of work. That can be games, but in our case we just ended up coming back to 80’s movies we liked and then giving each other our reviews of new releases. I think since that was a big reason for us starting to talk more outside of work, it just evolved from there.
Olly: Also, for the last year I’ve been addicted to Skyrim, so it would have to be a weekly update on my antics there, which in all honesty I’m not sure anybody wants or needs (you’d be surprised… – Ed).
Do you have a personal favourite episode on your Guys on Film podcast and what can we expect to see in the near future?
Olly: There’s quite a few! Bondage (James Bond ‘sode), because I think guest contributor Pete Cater is on fire with some great chatting, plus there’s a goldmine of IMDB nonsense. Recently both the Goths on Film episode and the Dogs on Film were ones I had wanted to do for a while. I think we have reached a comfortable effortless place now where we know what we are doing, we know what works, and I do get nice comments from people on the high quality of the format! Someone said and I quote “It’s better than Radio 4”. I’ll take that.
Iain: We run a few multi-part pieces which I like. We did Tom Month, where we did 4 weeks on the Tom’s in film – Hanks, Hardy, Cruise and then a party where we invited all of the rest of the Toms. We also have an as yet incomplete odyssey for Arnold Schwarzenegger. We’re up to part four on Arnie, with a theoretical final part on the way. It’s never hugely serious, but I also like the Video Nasties two-parter, because in episodes like those they’re leaning much more towards informative. Still banter-heavy, but we’ve certainly done our research.
In a recent Arcade Attack podcast we asked ourselves what films we would love to see converted into video games. We considered films from Commando, Heat, Billy Madison and even She’s All That! What film would you most like to see re-imagined as a video game and why?
Olly: Great question. For me, I don’t understand why there has never been a really good reverse GTA. I mean come on, all I want to do is be a cop, I’ve had enough of being a rotter in games. Imagine starting off fresh out of college, starting your path to becoming a police officer, from there it’s up to you. If you want to be a beat officer, questioning people and giving out fines….no problem. Want to climb the ranks and be a super cop and go on stakeouts…no worries. Want to be a scumbag Vic Mackie type bending the rules and being a dirty cop….no worries.
Don’t give me a story, just let stuff happen. And that’s why I think Police Academy would make the perfect game from a film. That or Escape from New York.
Iain: Marley and Me. (where you can save Marley????? – Ed)
What’s your top three video games and films?
Games: Ninja Gaiden Black, Shadow of the Colossus, and Tony Hawk Pro Skater 3.
Films: Big Trouble in Little China, Dead Man’s Shoes, and Interstellar
Games: Batman: Arkham Asylum, Metal Gear Solid, Alien Storm. Although saying that, I think it’s touch and go with Akham and Shadow of the Colossus
Films: Alien, Before Sunrise and Se7en
What are your ambitions for your podcast and would you be up for a cross-over episode one day?
Olly: Personally I’d like to do a couple of live screenings of classic films and discuss them after with groups of people, have bowls of crisps, and some thinking syrups for those that need it. The ambition here is just to connect with people, and hopefully for a good amount of people to eagerly anticipate that notification that our new episode has dropped on the Sunday.
Absolutely up for a crossover, We have done an episode about films from games, so I think I’d love to have one about when actors star in games, like Bruce Willis in Apocalypse, and Danny Dyer in GTA San Andreas!
Iain: Definitely up for a cross-over cast. For the podcast, I’d like to get more video content out there, we’ve posted some stuff already, but we’d really like to make more comedy videos too.
Lovely, we look forward to a collaboration soon! Finally then, as I know you’re both hella busy – if you could both share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?
Olly: Being honest I’m a total non-drinker unless I’m on holiday with Iain, Peter and friend of the Podcast Tim. However, if forced then it would be my character from Skyrim, an Ebony Armoured battle Mage that can down 20 ales, 10 Wines, a whole cheese wheel and still have room left for a mammoth tusk or two.
Iain: I reckon the DARPA chief from Metal Gear. He ‘dies’ too soon, he had more to give. Or maybe our own character Patrick Callahan.