A Week in Our Worlds – Jon Zuk

For the second part of todays episode of A Week in Our Worlds we have an interview with another Raven level designer, Jon Zuk. Jon gives us the skinny on his prison life, touring with KISS and umm… other stuff. Check it out!

1)Tell us a little bit about yourself, where are you from, what are you into, have you ever been to prison?

My name is Jon Zuk, and I’m a Designer here at Raven. My first game here was Take No Prisoners. Since then, I’ve worked as a Lead Designer on Hexen II: Portal of Praevus, and Heretic II. I was a Designer on Soldier of Fortune, and on Star Trek: Elite Force. I am going to be a Lead Design once again on one of the next projects, but I can’t say what that is yet.

I originally hail from the Chicagoland area, which brings all sorts of derision from the Cheeseheads here. They call me FIB and FISH and make fun of the Bears alot. If you don’t know what those acronyms mean, just know the I stands for Illinois. Bob Love is also from Illinois, so we stick together during football season.

My “current” hobbies (I have a short attention span) are playing games, watching movies, collecting toys, and sleeping. I’d really love to do more of that sleeping thing, but it seems to be harder than finding that favorite toy everyone wants.

I’ve never been to prison, but Jersey tells me it isn’t such a bad place.

2)What’s the longest amount of time you’ve gone without sleep while working on a project?

Hmmm. I have to have a little sleep from time to time, so I have done spurts of 20 to 22 hours mingled with 2 to 3 hours of sleep. That happened alot on Take No Prisoners and Heretic II. On SoF, I did a stint of 24 hours straight with Keith Fuller as we hammered out the tutorial level in record time.

3)Rumor has it you play guitar… What kind of guitar(s) do you have? Have your dreams of touring with KISS and the psycho circus midgets come true yet?

I do play guitar, although not very well and definitely not recently. I have a cheap-o Ibanez. It’s like the cheapest one available.

KISS?! Did Kenn put you up to that? I hate KISS! I’m more of a Metallica kind of guy. Recently, I’ve been doing a daily jam to Disturbed while I work. KISS. Hmmph.

4)Have you seen X-Men yet?

I did see X-Men, and I thought it was awesome. Looking past Halle Berry’s four different accents throughout the movie, I didn’t find much else wrong with it. I didn’t expect a whole lot going in, so I think that helped me out. There were some great one liners, great fight scenes, and best of all is that they treated the comic with respect.

5)Alright, time for some design questions. What kind of things do you do when your getting ready to layout the design for a new level?

That’s kind of personal isn’t it? I light some candles, burn some incense… oh… you mean when I build the level. I try to familiarize myself with the design doc, and I talk with the leads about what they want to see. If I’m the lead, I talk to myself, but for some reason people steer clear of me. I then do some “research” by browsing the internet for all the latest porn… no, I look for pictures to use for reference. Then, I usually do a quick sketch on paper of what I want the layout to be and where the main points of the level will occur. Then, I get to work breaking everything the programmers have done.

6)What would you consider to be the most difficult aspect of level design?

I wouldn’t say there’s any one most difficult thing as it changes week to week and project to project. In SoF, scale was definitely a problem at the beginning. Lighting was hard for a while when we switched to Arghrad, as it was something new to learn. On Trek, I’m doing the in-game cinematics, so working in other people’s levels can get confusing. Most of all, I would say the toughest thing is not having all the resources you need as the artists and programmers are usually working on the assests at the same time.

7)What are some typical mistakes that amateur level designers should watch out for?

Anytime they see a bug in any FPS game, they shouldn’t do that. Seriously, I would familiarize myself with the entities, the style of the game, and the general engine constraints. I’ve had plenty of emails where people can’t get their level to work and I ask if they put a start spot in. “What’s that?” they ask. I’ve also had people make levels that try to compete with Toy Story, then they wonder why it won’t compile on their P133 with 32 MB of RAM.

8)In your opinion, what’s the best level you’ve ever played?

I can’t say any one singular level sticks out in my mind. I really like it when you’re playing the game and you stop looking at it as being a level. The first part of Half Life really accomplished this. System Shock 2 and Dues Ex are both great games with lots of great areas. As far as just plain straighfoward fun, I really enjoyed a lot of the Unreal Tournament levels, but I couldn’t really name one out of the group.

9)Of all the levels you have designed, which one do you feel completely shows off all your talents?

Probably the Darkmire Swamp level in Heretic II. That level was a bitch to make. Two others had already taken a stab at it, but it wasn’t what Brian Pelletier (the Project Lead) wanted. As the Lead Designer, I had to make it work. I built the whole thing in about 7 days, taking a few pieces from the other attempts. Then, I had to put hint brushes, no draws and everything else to get it to work. With all that said, it took over 8 hours to compile on our server. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite level I’ve ever made, but I’m proud of how it turned out.

10)Any last words of advice, or is there anyone you would like to publicly humiliate?

My advice to all the would-be level designers is to get making maps. There’s always positions in the industry, and if you can wow people with a cool level instead of a resume’, you’ll probably get the job. Don’t be afraid to mail your favorite designers with questions about how they did something. We’re all busy people, but most will take the time to answer your questions.

I don’t really need to humiliate anyone, since nobody’s seriously pissed me off this week. Except for all the artists, animators, and programmers.

A big thanks from the GED staff to Jon for his time. I’m sure everyone will sleep much more comfortably tonight… after they remember to lock their doors.