A Week in Our Worlds – Jeff Lane

Here is today’s second half of A Week in Our Worlds. Jeff Lane of Valve Software, you might also know them as the guys that created that extremely unpopular game, Half-Life, sat down and talked with us about his life, his problems and the torture they put him through at Valve.

1)So how are things at Valve? Are they treating you right?

Aside from the daily floggings with a piece of barbed wire, it’s going great.

2)Tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from, how’d you get into the gaming biz, stuff your into, any weird ritualistic mating habits you perform?

I’m originally from Anchorage, Alaska. My family moved down to the Seattle area when I was nine years old, and I’ve lived here ever since. I’ve traveled around a bit, but I’ve never found a very compelling reason to live anywhere else yet. This is a great place to live.

I got into the gaming business through commercial computer graphics, actually. In a former life, I did graphics and animation in the video post-production field. When CD-ROM technology started to take off, I got into the so-called interactive media business. I did lots of art and interface design on commercial projects. That ended up leading to a job in the games industry. I did 3D art, effects, environments, and interface work for “interactive movies” for Hyperbole Interactive and Sierra Studios before I started doing level design.

I had been playing FPS games since Wolfenstein, so when the opportunity came up to do some FPS prototyping at Sierra, I dove right in. I did several prototypes there, then did level design for SWAT3: CQB before coming to Valve.

3)What other jobs, besides level design, have you held in your life? Don’t be embarrassed now, I want the DIRT! I worked as a cook for IHOP for like 8 months when I was 16, so I’ve seen the arm-pit of jobs. If you can beat that, then more power to yah.

Well, I was going to make up a story about selling toy monkeys in Ecuador, but I thought that might be stretching it. In reality, I feel really lucky in the jobs I’ve had. In high school, I got a job at a local print shop, and I’ve been doing graphics and design work ever since. Sorry! =)

4)id Software is known as the game design company with Bad Ass cars… What kinds of cars do you, and some of the other Valve employees drive?

Well, I sold my last Ferrari to pay off all my Pokemon gambling debts. I still have a ’90 Audi Quattro Coupe, a ’97 Honda Prelude, and a ’97 BMW F650ST motorcycle. Dario is proud of his nifty BMW M Coupe. Really proud.

5)Being an educational site and all, we should probably ask you some questions about design techniques stuff. How do you begin designing a new level?

Most of the time, I start by brainstorming a bit on paper, with words, to get basic ideas about the kind of themes and some overall design goals. I find that it’s really important to decide what I want to accomplish with the design, and what interesting gameplay aspects I’m striving for. I usually look for some visual references (photos) next, but that depends on the level. Then I draw out some basic layouts on paper, but I sometimes skip that step and “sketch” some brushes in Worldcraft. As it probably sounds, I never stick to an exact formula other than the brainstorm at the start. Flexibility is important to me.

6)What are some of the ways you add detail to your levels?

I try to aim for a level of detail that creates the overall feeling that the player is in the environment. Any detail that helps accomplish that goal stays in, and unnecessary elements get cut. It’s a very mercenary design process, but that’s the way it has to be. I also try to build objects that can accept detailed textures, instead of adding extra brushes, because the textures can provide most of the needed detail. Harry Teasley does a great job of working with us to make textures that fill in right amount of detail.

7)What, in your opinion, is the best level you’ve ever played?

Very hard to pick *one*, but I’ll say Edge of Oblivion, HIPDM1, part of the Scourge of Armagon Mission pack for Quake I, by the ever-humble Levelord. He did some great levels for that pack, but we played HIPDM1 on the LAN at Sierra for countless hours. It was a clever and original way to make an open, spacious arena, and worked great with the air control and rocket jumping in Quake.


8)What level are you most proud of designing?

Actually, I’d have to say some of the levels that were never releasing publicly, that I did while I was working at Sierra Studios on prototypes. Not because I think that is my best work, but because we had so little support. One programmer (Brian Johnston, who also ended up on SWAT3) and I were able to make something cool and fun with so little. I still have the original CD and receipt for buying the shareware version of Worldcraft we used (before it was bought by Valve). I learned a lot in a short amount of time and both level and game design.

9)Care to publicly humiliate anyone, or give one last bit of advise to would-be level designers?

As far as humiliating anyone, no, I don’t think so. Call me soft, but I think too much of that goes on as it is. Besides, I’ve found that those that need humiliating tend to manage to pull it off all by themselves. 🙂

Advice to aspiring level designers — besides to obligatory “just do it” speech, I would say to pay attention to what other designers are doing. Learn from what they do right, and especially learn from what they do wrong. On top of that, never, ever, underestimate the usefulness of playtesting. The feedback you get is invaluable.

GamersEd would like to thank Jeff for putting up with our turets syndrome, YOU SKANKY HOE!!! and for taking the time to answer a few of our questions.