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From the Battlefield to the Tilted Mill

Heroes of Might and Magic IV would only be a shadow of what it is today without Gus Smedstad. Some of the best features in the game, such as the battlefield artificial intelligence and the skill system, are among his creations. We originally hoped to meet Gus at the E3, but he was not one of the Tilted Mill representatives at the show. Fortunately, he agreed to write from his Wellesley, MA office. In this article we discuss the life of a programmer, Fry's Electronics, the strategy game genre and the dreaded adventure map AI.

Celestial Heavens: How are you doing? And how is your current project going?

Gus Smedstad: I don't feel I can talk about the project I'm currently working on at Tilted Mill, except to say that it's further along than I'd expect for the amount of time that we've put into it. From a purely project management point of view, we're doing very well indeed.

CH: What is a typical day in the life of a game programmer? Is the job as fun as it sounds?

GS: I think gamers tend to romanticize working in the game industry. It's definitely hard work, and even when you're working on a game that fits what you'd like to play, there are days when you're either slogging through a hard problem, or there's a bug that seems impossible to diagnose. Generally, the first thing I do in the morning is pick an issue to fix, or a feature that needs implementing. I'm not currently doing any design work, but when I was working on Heroes IV, sometimes there would be design details that needed filling in, or balance issues to address.

In any case, I then spend some time thinking about how I'm going to do it. If it's complicated, that may mean sketching out a diagram or two, or writing out an approach in English pseudo-code. I.e., "for every hero, do this-and-such." Most of the rest of my day is writing code. It's not very exciting to watch, just a lot of typing. Once I've got a draft done, I generally have to iron out a few typos or overlooked items that the compiler finds.


The folks at Tilted Mill, during a party...

Finally, I test. Usually testing is nothing like game play, it's a purpose-designed scenario that checks first the "normal" conditions, and some extreme cases to test possible problems. I.e. does the creature select the right target? What if there's no way to reach the target? What if taking the action at all is a poor choice?

That's all there is to it, really. I generally don't see the entire game as a whole until late in the project, usually I've gone over individual pieces many, many times, but not in the kind of context a player has.

CH: You were looking for a publisher for a game of your own in early 2002. Why did you choose Tilted Mill instead? Was leaving California a difficult decision?

GS: Honestly, I dropped the idea of going independent because I lost confidence in my ability to do so. The design I had looked a little too derivative to me, and since I was in pretty good shape financially, it was just a little too easy to just slack off and play games instead of work. Leaving California wasn't actually that hard, though I hate the amount of work and disruption moving brings. I grew up in Michigan, so I found I had no real trouble adjusting to the colder weather, though I still don't like driving in snow. The housing prices are better here, and so is the traffic, though neither is as much better as I'd like. I do miss ready access to Fry's Electronics, which is an computer and electronics superstore chain in California. Places like CompUSA or Circuit City just aren't in the same ballpark.

CH: The skill system remains my favorite feature of Heroes of Might and Magic IV. It is accessible, yet deep enough to ensure replayability. What was your favorite?

GS: I'm glad you liked the Heroes IV skill system. I'd played an awful lot of Heroes II, and not quite as much Heroes III, and one thing I knew I wanted was more meaningful choices in skills and spells. I wanted to avoid the pitfalls of must-have skills, like Wisdom, and useless skills, like Eagle Eye.

I also wanted a system that was more skill-driven than character class driven. I've always been a fan of skill-based pen and paper RPGs, like GURPS, as opposed to class based ones, like D&D. The magic system really was at the core of my Heroes IV design, but the skill system followed naturally from it and from my feelings about skills.

I don't think I can pick a single favorite skill. I liked the way the combat skills added special abilities to your hero, and of course each of the magic skills has the whole depth of that field of magic tacked on to it. To say, for example, that I liked the actual play of Life magic better than most doesn't really say that Life Magic as a skill is all that interesting, since it's just an enabler for a branch of magic.

CH: The main problem with Heroes IV is definitely the erratic behavior of the computer player on the adventure map. What happened there exactly? Why does the AI have some success on the battlefield (despite various changes with spells, range combat, special abilities and damage calculation), but keep making major blunders on the adventure map?

GS: The adventure AI is a touchy subject. We were under enormous time pressure with Heroes IV, and really the game was released 3, maybe 6 months before it was really done. As a result, I delegated some programming tasks that I probably should not have.

I did write the battlefield AI, which is why it has a substantially similar feel to the Heroes III battlefield AI. The programmer who did the adventure AI was an excellent programmer, but didn't have that much experience with AI or the Heroes series, and didn't get the polish time he needed to bring it up to the level of the Heroes III adventure AI.


What if the computer played as well on the adventure map than on the battlefield? We will never know...

CH: If one thing could have made HoMM IV a better game, what would that be?

GS: From a design standpoint, the single best thing I could have done to improve Heroes IV would have been to keep the "unconscious" state for heroes. The idea was that heroes on the winning side of a battle who fell in combat weren't dead, they were just badly hurt. Because we dropped the idea, we opened all sorts of unpleasant loopholes in scenario victory and defeat conditions which relied on hero deaths. The "potion of immortality" was a last minute stopgap to try and fix half the problem, the defeat conditions, but we really should have gone back to the original model.

CH: How did you feel about the reaction of the fans and the press? Were the expectations from the fans too high according to you?

GS: I don't think the expectations of the fans were too high, nor do I think the press reaction was unfair. We released a game well before anyone on the development team thought it was done or should be released. I like to think we might have met fan expectations if we'd really finished it. Except perhaps those fans who just wanted an expansion of the previous games, rather than a true sequel.

CH: Did you keep in touch with current and former New World employees?

GS: I do still occasionally exchange emails with former New World employees, though not as often as I did six months ago. Current New World employees are a different matter, since all of the artists and programmers I knew were either fired or quit. One did hang on for nearly a year, but quit when the company moved out of the Los Angeles area.

CH: How do you feel about the most controversial design decisions for Heroes V, such as removing heroes from the battlefield? Was it a bad idea in the first place?

GS: I haven't been following the news on design decisions for Heroes V. I think that heroes on the battlefield are and were appropriate for a Heroes game, with its ties to RPGs and heroic fantasy. Realistically, the fighting contributions of individual heroes shouldn't make much difference to a battle with armies hundreds or thousands of creatures, but the Heroes series has always been more about enjoyable gameplay than realism.

Since heroes don't grow the way economies and armies do, balancing them as individual units was difficult, but I think I did a decent job.

CH: Is there still a future for turn-based strategy games? Is there any danger that the genre might suffer from the same faith as the adventure genre several years ago? Are RTS taking all the room in the market?

GS: Yes, I do see a future for turn-based strategy games. Real time does give you better a better model of many actions, but even with the ability to pause and give orders, you can't easily spread your attention across several areas in a real time game, and you can with a turn based game. As long as we have people who enjoy playing games of grand scope like Civilization, we'll have successful turn based games. I think the problem with Adventure games was that they were inherently less interactive than strategy games or action games. You can't stray very far out of the bounds of the story the designer envisioned. As such, they're highly sensitive to good writing, and good writing in rare in computer games.

Strategy games, whether turn based or real time, have a much greater potential for the player to tell his own unique story. Writing isn't critical to game enjoyment, though it can help.

CH: Finally, what game are you playing these days?

GS: I am currently playing a Playstation 2 (gasp) game, Dark Cloud 2, and enjoying it a great deal. The writing is really awful, but I enjoy the gameplay. It's a resource management geek's game. You're continually modifying your character's weapons, you're saving resources for town building, you're going on photograph collecting expeditions, and you're even allocating skill points in things like the fishing mini-game. It's a surprisingly complex game, and it flies in the face of the cliché that console games are relatively unsophisticated compared to PC games.

CH: Thank you very much Gus. The best of luck for your current project.


Comments (1)   

Originally appeared on The Astral Wizard. Reprinted with permission.

Fnord:
Having worked on the previous Heroes games, what's your overall feeling about Heroes IV? Has the opportunity to create a completely new game, with a brand new engine and top-quality art opened up any new features that weren't technically possible to do in the previous games of the series?

Gus:
I think the choices you will make as a player will be harder. We've made a real effort to make all creatures, spells, and skills individually different and uniquely valuable. You'll be hard pressed to decide which ones you want.

To answer the second part, yes, definitely. There are a lot of technical improvements in the new engine.

In combat, we can now handle multiple animations gracefully, which means that a wide variety of spells and creature abilities are now possible that would have been difficult before.

On the adventure map, we can now make the wandering monsters move instead of remaining fixed in place.

We're also getting a lot of mileage out of alpha-blending. We're using it for anti-aliasing and for transparency effects, such as partially submerged icebergs on the adventure map, and translucent illusionary creatures in combat.

Of course, those are just a few examples of the many improvements in the game engine.

Fnord:
One of the most important aspects of the single player version of any strategy game is the quality of the AI programming. Can you tell us a little bit about how the AI in Heroes IV works and how it differs from, and improves upon, the Heroes III AI?

Gus:
When you're writing an AI, you're always learning from previous games. While the Heroes III AI is certainly a major improvement over the Heroes II AI, it still has some noticeable loopholes. For example, it's overly fond of attacking weak stacks, and it's prone to summon creatures even when it's overwhelmingly ahead, and a damage spell would be a better choice. These are things which I intend to correct in Heroes IV.

In broad outline, the basic approach remains the same. The AI evaluates each potential action, assigns it a value including a small random factor, and chooses the action with the highest value. In detail, there are many changes, but describing them is difficult without becoming highly technical.

For example, we're changing the basic "unit" used to value actions in combat from "creature value" to "damage potential." We're also adjusting the value of beneficial spells by a factor that includes relative army strength, and using a more complex method to consider spell point costs when selecting a spell.

Fnord:
Another feature, closely related to the AI programming, is the way that allied computer players are handled in the game. The changes from Heroes II to Heroes III were good, but the AI allies were still only mildly helpful for the most part. Will allied computer players be noticeably improved in Heroes IV?

Gus:
The difficult part of this problem is communicating your needs and desires to the AI. Without some easy way of doing this, the AI must always follow its own agenda, which may not match your strategy.

We certainly do intend to make them more helpful.

Fnord:
We've heard mention of a scripting language that will be part of the Heroes IV game. This is exciting news because it could really make maps come alive and be even more of an interactive experience than ever before. Could you provide a brief explanation of how the scripting language will work, the kinds of things that can be done with the language, and how easy it will be for mapmakers to learn to use?

Gus:
Scripts can be used anywhere where you would have used placed events or timed events in Heroes III. You can also attach scripts to individual heroes which are triggered when the hero enters combat or is killed or captured. Seer's huts, of course, can be scripted, as can victory conditions.

To create a script, you'll use a series of dialogs. A script is a series of actions, drawn from a list of about 30 choices. For example, you can give or remove creatures, artifacts, skills, spells, experience, and materials. When you add an action to a script, you get a dialog showing the various properties of the action, such as the target, and how much or what to change.

The most important new actions are the conditional and question actions. If the condition is true, or the player answers "yes", the game executes one set of actions. If not, it executes a different set. This means that the storyline can follow the player's actions much more closely than was possible before.

There are roughly 20-30 things you can test in a conditional, such as whether a specific hero, skill, creature, or artifact is present. You can also test variables that you set in actions, so you can record whether the player has accomplished a task, or visited a location.

In general, anything you could do in a Pandora's Box, placed event, town event, or timed event can be done with a script.

Fnord:
The map editors included with Heroes keep getting better and better with each new game and every expansion pack released. Features such as a terrain height editor have been mentioned, as well as customizable object palettes. Could you elaborate on these new features and explain how they might be used, along with any other new features that the Heroes IV map editor will incorporate?

Gus:
The terrain height editor lets you raise and lower land on the adventure map. You select the tool, and how large an area you would like to affect, and you drag the terrain up or down. There are restrictions on the changes you can make, so that you can't create a slope so steep that you cannot see the squares on the far slope.

The result is more natural looking terrain. The 3D effects may not be strongly apparent unless you're looking at a shoreline, but you'll always notice the variations in shading of the terrain.

Object palettes allow you to organize the adventure objects into folders in any way you desire. You can even customize an adventure object, and then drag it into the palette. From then on, when you drag that object onto the map, it will be customized that way. You can have multiple copies of an adventure object customized in different ways in a folder, or in different folders.

I primarily see this as a way to change the editor to suit your preferences. If you find that you'd rather organize objects by terrain type, instead of by function, you can do that. Or you can organize it by alignment, or any other method that meets your needs. It's also something of a scratch pad, that you can use to store customized objects or sets of objects you need to make a map.

Rock terrain, for underground maps, has been improved in a big way. You now have two choices for wall appearance, either stone wall or cave wall, and the placement is a lot more flexible. You can now draw any wall shape, including single tile wide rock walls, which wasn't possible before because of restrictions in the terrain tile set.

Fnord:
Mapmakers love to customize everything about their map, and with each Heroes release, more and more objects have been customizable. Will this trend of increased customization be continued in Heroes IV?

Gus:
The most powerful new tool for customization is the scripting language. By adding scripts to objects, you can do almost anything.

For example, you can add a script to a town that opens up a passage through the forest when the player conquers the town.

Fnord:
Also regarding customization, will it be possible to import graphics, sounds or music into player-created Heroes maps?

Gus:
Not this time around, but it's something we might do for an expansion.

Fnord:
Some people found the campaign editor in Heroes III a bit difficult to work with, and it didn't seem quite as polished as the standalone map editor. In what ways will the campaign editor in Heroes IV be improved, and will it be incorporated as part of the standard map editor or left as a separate program?

Gus:
The campaign editor is now an integrated part of the map editor, rather than a separate tool. It should be much easier to use simply because of that.

Fnord:
One of the most asked for wishes for Heroes IV dealt with some kind of expanded event system, where one event could be linked to another. Have you found a good way to do this, or are linked and "smart" events now part of the new scripting language?

Gus:
The scripting language completely replaces the event system in Heroes III. By setting variables with a script, you can pass information to another script.

Fnord:
In the previous games, diplomacy was limited to preset alliances between players, set at the start of the game. Will there be any sort of expanded or dynamic diplomacy model in Heroes IV?

Gus:
While we did consider this, it's not something we plan on doing for Heroes IV. It's quite possible that this might appear in an expansion.

Fnord:
Could you tell us your favorite new feature of Heroes IV, or the part that you most enjoyed programming?

Gus:
In broad terms, the changes to the heroes. I like the new skill system, I like the new spell system, and I like the changes we were able to make because heroes now appear in combat. I think my current favorite new thing is the Animate Dead spell, which allows you to temporarily raise dead creatures as undead, even if they didn't originally belong to you.

Fnord:
Thank you for taking the time to answer some of my questions. Is there anything else you would like to add about the much-anticipated Heroes IV?

Gus:
I think the significant differences in the spell schools, and the number of special abilities, are going to mean that there are many different ways to play the game. A creature-summoning Druid is going to play very differently from a lightning-throwing Sorcerer or a Priest casting protective spells.



Q&A with Fabrice Cambounet

Heroes of Might and Magic V Producer, Ubisoftt

When did work on Heroes begin exactly?
Not more than a month ago actually for the real production, although the process of launching the project itself started a couple of months before that.

How did you end up working on that project?
I am probably the most qualified to work on strategy projects among ubisoft producers. And anyway I suppressed any possible competition (and hide the bodies). :)

Do you have a lot of experience with the Heroes games? Are you familiar with the Heroes player community?
As a player I am mostly a Heroes 3 fan, I only picked up Heroes 4 when starting the project (shame). Three years ago I was responsible for the port of Heroes 3 to the Dreamcast. This was done with the "Arcatera" developer, now-defunct german Westka. They did a really good job, and everything was adapted to the DC, however we were not able to speed up the game enough to a satisfying level. This was very disappointing as we spent month testing and trying different methods to have a good result, but in the end the project was not released. Regarding the community, I am only discovering it right now :)

When will Ubisoft officially announce the game?
Probably not before around this time next year, as there is a long road to go. But I will be happy to communicate with all people interested in the subject until (and after) this point.

Are there any plans to recruit former 3DO or New World Computing employees?
We are considering this.

How much of the work done by NWC before the 3DO bakruptcy do you expect to reuse, if any?
This is to be evaluated, however it will certainly be a small part of what they did for Heroes 5.

Is there any major change (3D engine, Heroes on/off the battlefield, etc.) that has been considered yet?
These *minor* changes are among the "one-thousand-questions-for-heroes5-design" :)

Will Ubisoft re-release Heroes of Might and Magic IV? Will it provide support for the various Heroes games?
No info there.

Are there plans to develop a RPG Might and Magic game in the future?
All I can say now is : "most certainly".

How should fans submit their ideas for the game?
In order to avoid a flood on ubi's mailboxes, I am contacting the major communities in each country (or looking for them), to act for ideas gathering and first selection, before sending them over. All ideas will be considered, but of course all cannot be implemented. Everything is open to discussion at this stage, and I am really eager to know what the fans have
in mind for this game.

Special thanks to Fabrice for taking the time to answer our questions. Image courtesy of Heroic Corner.


Comments (3)   

Dave Botan

Celestial Heavens: Hello, and thank you for agreeing to do this interview with Celestial Heavens.

David Botan: No problem.

CH: Ok, first up, what was your exact position at NWC and what did it entail?

DB: I was a Level Designer II and my main responsibility was creating maps for the Heroes series using the proprietary editor. This sometimes involved writing text for the in-game story and custom hero bios. In between Heroes games I would either help out on other projects (when there were others) or assist others in small tasks.

CH: Do you have any history with playing the Heroes of Might and MagicGames?

DB : My first contact with Heroes was “King’s Bounty” (the prelude to the Heroes series as every true fan knows) for the Commodore 64 and I loved it. After I was hired as a tester some 7 years ago, I started playing and testing Heroes 1 when the first patch was released. I play-tested Heroes 2 next and then started doing Level Design for 3 and 4 (along with their expansions).

CH: What is your opinion on the latest incarnation in the series?

DB : Well, there’s no doubt that the latest version was rushed. 3DO’s schedules are never easy. I think if the A.I. had more time, in particular, the game would have been a true AAA title, but as it was, I think we made a good game.

CH: How did the map-making process work at the company? Did more than one person usually work on a single map?

DB : Usually with campaign maps the designers would give a specific concept of what they wanted and then we were free to expand on the little things. On single player maps it was more free-form: we were told what sizes needed to be made and how many, and that was it. The level designers did all the rest. Of course this varied by designer and project. On the last two expansions we were given even more leeway on campaign maps, which was almost a necessity since there were so few of us left. As for the second question, the artists did the terrain for most of the “Picture maps” (the ones that actually looked like something in the mini-map) and a few of the normal terrain maps. Then they are passed along to the level designer(s) for playability purposes, adding towns, power-ups and such. If we were really rushed the artists did most of the map terrains.

CH: Do you use the map editor included in the game to make the maps ordo you have other tools at your disposal?

DB : I used the same editor that the public used, though I would use beta versions at first so we could get the maps done quickly.

Dave Screen 1 Dave Screen 8
Two of David's maps for the Heroes IV expansions

CH: Was there a particular reason why the story lines in the expansion campaign maps were markedly thinner than those in the originalcampaigns?

DB : Yes, the original designers for Heroes IV wanted loads of story-related text. They even hired a writer to handle it all. I built my maps around the text in most cases. Unfortunately at the end of Heroes IV when most of the team was let go, the ones that were left wanted less text. I, for one, like a good story, but as a map-maker, I follow orders, so less text it was. I think the problem was that people expected lots of text after Heroes IV. In Heroes V, I wouldn’t expect a big, elaborate story, but I would expect great game-play and a much-improved A.I.

CH: As a professional map-maker, do you have any tips for community map-makers?

DB : Well, unfortunately, as a level designer I didn’t get the chance to make the kinds of maps I wanted to make many times because of time constraints and other reasons, but the fans are lucky because they have this time. Anyway, this is my advice: make a map you know you’ll have fun playing, write a great story with interesting events (this doesn’t necessarily mean complicated, most of my events were simple), and don’t hide resources and artifacts behind trees or mountains. Pathways should always be clear and wide unless you want it to be a choke point guarded by a monster or gate, and last but not least: play-balance, play-balance, play-balance!

CH: How aware are the staff at 3DO of the game community (news, usermaps, forum opinions, add-ons etc.)?

DB : I browsed the forums and read public opinion a lot. As for Evil C, he also did a lot of browsing (especially as a moderator on the 3DO message boards). As for the rest I couldn’t really tell you. I think JVC is generally aware of what the users want but in the end he’s the big boss, and if everyone is screaming to get a better A.I. and he feels it would be too much of a change, well then, there will be no A.I. changes.

CH: Do you (or other staff) ever play custom maps?

DB : Generally no (as far as I could tell when I was there), we did not have a lot of time to play user-made maps. I did play a few at the end of the WOW expansion though, the ones that were from the contest and thought they were generally good.

CH: What is the company attitude towards making game-play balance changes in patches?

DB : Not very good. New World has rarely made game-play balance changes in patches. I would have loved the necromancy skill toned down as well as the Ogre mage to have more variety of spells to cast, but once again that decision came from the top. In the end I think NWC just didn’t have enough time to make changes and then playtest them again. I know I was usually too busy making maps for the next expansion to have played-balanced my campaigns again.

CH: Thanks again for your time, we appreciate your comments!

DB : You’re welcome. I just hope one day I’ll be able to make maps professionally once again. Oh and one last thing, if anyone wishes to contact me directly my e-mail is This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.*. I would be happy to answer any further questions.

 *Unfortunatelly David Botan passed away. He's now making maps in the heaven.



Chris Jacobson Interview

I recently had a chance to ask a few questions to Chris Jacobson over at Contraband Entertainment who is the Project Lead on Heroes of Might and Magic IV for Macintosh. I had some assistance in gathering questions from Angelspit of Celestial Heavens. The game is currently scheduled for a Christmas 2002 release and will be published by 3DO.

Rogue: Are you a fan of the Heroes of Might and Magic series?

Chris: I played the old game Kings Bounty, and enjoyed it for a bit, but never really kept up with the other games. I played them a bit, but not much. My interests in games are very eclectic.

Angelspit: What do you think is the most interesting improvement to Heroes IV compared to the earlier games?

Chris: Heroes IV is a complete rewrite from the ground up, and has many new features over the previous versions. There are so many things that were improved, and the new graphical engine is just a small portion of it.

Rogue: How has the porting process been for this game? With regards to Heroes III, I heard from the developer that the game was not difficult to port but the editing tools were a big task.

Chris: Being a complete rewrite, Heroes IV had to be done from the ground up. Overall it has been a fairly straightforward conversion, and our own DirectX and Windows conversion code, developed by Burger and I over the past few years on prior conversions, helped save a lot of time in getting the game running.

Chris: The editor has been as much work as the game itself, and in some ways more so. It involves large portions of GUI code being rewritten for the Mac.

Angelspit: How would you describe your cooperation with 3DO and NWC?

Chris: 3DO has been a dream to work with; they let us get the job done without trying to micromanage us. They are responsive when we need things from them, and easy to work with.

Rogue: Is the Macintosh port keeping up with the patches that have been added to the Windows version of the game?

Chris: Work was started with the v1.3 code, and we are incorporating the multiplayer patch currently.

Rogue: The multiplayer patch was recently released for the windows version of Heroes IV. Can you say what network protocol was used and if it will be possible for the Macintosh and Windows versions of the game to play together online?

Chris: The multiplayer patch uses DirectPlay. Unfortunately, that rules out Mac/PC networking compatability .

Rogue: Do you have an estimate of what the hardware requirements will be?

Chris: The minimum system requirements should be announced soon.

Rogue: The requirements, especially video RAM, were rather steep for the Windows version considering that it is a 2D turn-based game. Is this something that is being addressed in the Macintosh version of the game?

Chris: Being 2D game doesn't necessarily mean it will have lower memory requirements than a 3D game. Having many frames of animation for a 2D sprite takes up more RAM than a skeletally animated 3D model with a single texture. The game is VERY graphically intensive. On top of that, graphics are not the only use of RAM; game data, music, sounds, etc all have to be considered.

Rogue: What video and music formats will the game use? Will save files and game data files be compatible across platforms? Will there be any differences between the Macintosh and Windows versions of Heroes IV?

Chris: Video will be quicktime, music will be MP3. Save games and maps will be cross platform.

Rogue: Are there any plans for the Expansion, or is it too early to say?

Chris: That depends on sales of Heroes 4 for the Mac.

Rogue: Is there anything you want to add that readers might find interesting?

Chris: We are NOT fueled by souls of the damned. That would be canabilism.



Molding Heroes

April Lee is a Graphic Artist at New World Computing. She worked on Heroes II, Heroes III and Armageddon's Blade, creating well-known graphics such as the H2 Mummy, the Manticore and the Gnoll. She tells us about the world of graphics and her work on Heroes IV.

Note: All pictures in this article are property of April Lee or 3DO. Reprinted with permission.

To learn more about April Lee and her work, please visit her Web site at www.aprillee.com

Angelspit: You have worked with various media before, such as CD-ROM games, Collectible Card Games, RPG Books, Magazines, and so on. What is your favorite one? Which one do you think is the most rewarding?

April Lee: Most of my work has been either in computer games or card games. I've got to say that my favorite is the card games. I like working in traditional mediums, and sometimes we are given a lot of artistic license to create people, creatures, places and objects that can really affect the look of the game.

In computer games, I tend to be assigned all kinds of different things and since it IS so collaborative, I try to match my style to the game, rather than try to affect the look of the game. This isn't quite as satisfying as the card games, especially since the artists aren't really credited that well. With the card games, my name is usually on every piece of work I do. With computer game art, the art may have been begun by another artist and finished or touched up by yet another, so it's hard to point to anything that's really mine.

That said, I do enjoy modeling and animating on the computer. It's very different than painting, and it's fun to contribute to a team effort.

Angelspit: What is a typical day of work for you? Since you are a freelancer, I guess you must work from home? Do you have a particular schedule?

April: Actually, I work full-time at New World Computing/3DO. And if you know anything about computer game companies, this means that 50 or 60 hour work weeks are not uncommon. Almost every single other hour, and most of my sleeping time, is consumed by my free-lance illustration work. Actually, I'm getting a bit tired of doing both--it does wear a normal person out. I've been doing it for 7 years straight, which is pretty hard-core.

Schedule is usually: into the office by 10am, out by 9 or 10, then eat and work until 2 or 3 am, weekdays. Weekends--catch up on sleep, work in afternoon and nights until 3 or 4 am.

I also go to conventions and sell artwork and prints--which can also be incredibly time-consuming.

Angelspit: How did you come to work with New World Computing? You said you knew someone there? Is it easy to get in touch with gaming companies?

April: I was hired at New World 5 years ago, for character animation on Heroes 2. Before that I was working for a small game developer called The Dreamers Guild (not to be confused with the big-time DreamWorks!). Several co-workers had left there to work for New World, who offered better pay, and they passed my name on to the art director. I had the exact skills they were looking for, so it was a natural transition.

The first game I ever worked on (at the Dreamers Guild) was "Inherit the Earth", which was published by New World. And I had also done free-lance, black and white illustrations (non-digital) for New World's manuals from 1989-95. So I actually had a rather long association with the company. It was also local to me, which didn't hurt.

Now, breaking into computer games with no experience is a bit harder. It wasn't too hard when I started in the early '90s, since the technology was still evolving and there were very few--almost NO-- places that actually taught the computer graphic skills. I was trained as an Illustrator in traditional media (at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena), and that alone helped get me in. But I also had been a fantasy artist, showing my art at Science Fiction conventions for years, so people at the Dreamers Guild knew me and I originally started doing concept sketches for them.

Since all companies at that time were critically short of computer artists, and the artwork in games was becoming increasingly involved and increasingly a large part of the game, they were practically begging me to work on the computer -- willing to train me and give me a computer at home to learn on, etc. Now that there are more schools that teach the programs, and the programs are more difficult to learn, it's probably harder to break in. Although an illustrator can almost still do it the way I did (starting with concept sketches)--as long as they know at least a bit of PhotoShop. I learned everything on the job, though, which isn't how it's being done these days.

Angelspit: You said working on the art for a computer game is a collaborative effort. It must be difficult to work with people with different background and styles, to know where your work starts and where it ends. Please describe how this process works. Also, which tools do you use?

April: I'm not very up on all the Game Design aspects--but it begins with the Designers and the Leads--in art and programming. The designers need to start a Design Document that covers the game play and all the elements. As soon as they have some idea of what assets and programming they will need, those leads will come in and figure out the time and resources (in artists and programmers), and the producer/lead designer will organize the writers and other departments, and interface with, perhaps, level or map design teams, testers, marketing, etc. Then things start going into production. In art, often there will be a concept sketch artist who will be communicating the look of the game, determined by the art director. Modelers and texture artists and 2d/interface artists will hopefully get their direction from the art director and the concept sketches. With Heroes 4, the art director was doing some concept sketches, as well as various artists. If I was assigned to do a building for the Adventure Map, say, a Library, I would get a sketch and I would model and texture the item based on that, and perhaps animate it, and submit it to the art director for approval, then it would get plugged into to the game by the asset-coordinator. The maps would be assembled by the map designers on Map Editors created by the programmers, etc.

Most game companies, New World included, use 3D Studio-Max and PhotoShop, primarily, along with other programs to do specialty things.

Angelspit: How do you manage to "enter" the Might and Magic universe, in other words, where do you get the information you need to create such a good-looking creature? Did Classic authors, mythology or the other Heroes games inspire you?

April: This is mostly left up to those doing the sketches. I've done some now and then. MM tends to be very "classic" fantasy/rpg--which means the images most people are familiar with--vaguely Northern European medieval-like society, with generic dwarves, halflings, elves, etc. We just use whatever visual inspiration we like to try not to make things mind-numbingly boring and repetitive. Hopefully, we are creative and interested enough to do this, at the same time, making sure we're not doing something TOO out there so that it doesn't fit into the general look of the game.

Angelspit: Are you a gamer yourself? If so, what are your favorite games, of any kind?

April: I started role-playing (AD&D, Runequest, C&S, Traveler) decades ago, but haven't had much time to do that lately. I can still think of playing paper rpg's since it's up to the GM to do all the work and planning and I can just join in a session for an afternoon or evening. I haven't had time to put into a computer rpg (I have NOT gotten through ANY MM game--or anything similar). And I can't keep up with the card games, either. I can do some lunchtime multi-player Unreal Tournament, now and then!

Angelspit: I just cannot resist: can you say a little something about Heroes 4? I know you must be under a NDA, but something like "there's a new creature, and it's brown and ugly!" would be fun!

April: Hmmm... I'm not up on the creatures. There are plenty of the Usual Suspects, however... I have friends who are Heroes fanatics and I am VERY frustrating for them, since I really don't read the design doc and can't tell them what's new, even if I wasn't under a non-disclosure act...

Angelspit: Thank you very much for your time April! We can't wait to see the results of your good work on Heroes IV. Best of luck in the future!


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