Every now and again we like to sit down with the Wushu team and talk shop. From art to design and personal stories into the games industry, there’s a lot to tell from our team members and even more to learn. In this week’s Wushu Roundtable, we sat down with Lead Designer Mike Humphrey, a veteran from titles like MotorStorm: Pacific Rift and WipEout 2048, to talk about everything from his start in games to what it means to be a ‘designer’ on a project.
Thanks for the taking some time out of your busy day to talk with us Mike!
No worries at all, it’s my pleasure!
You joined us just last month. We hope you’ve been settling in well here in Wushu land!
Yeah it’s been great. I mean, I was worried about starting a new job in the middle of a global pandemic and not being able to actually come into the studio to meet everyone, but it actually went really smoothly and worked out really well. Everyone has been extremely welcoming, and within a couple of days of video calls it already felt like I’d been here forever (in a good way).
You have a fairly long history working in the games industry, back to the original MotorStorm days. Did you always know you wanted to work in games?
Honestly, I didn’t even think it was a job that real people could do. Like making movies, it seemed like something that was done in a far off place by mythical people. I’d been playing games since I was a kid, and they were a huge part of my life. I think I got my first ‘console’ in about 1986 which was a ZX Spectrum, then I progressed on to the Sega consoles but got really heavily into PC gaming in the 90s. I played around with making levels for Doom and Doom 2 when I was a teenager, and then playing them networked against friends, but I really just thought of that as a hobby. I didn’t really consider it seriously as a career at all.
Later, when I’d already started a career as a technical writer in the early 2000s, I heard that universities were starting to offer courses in Games Design, and it blew my mind. I applied, not expecting to get in, and was offered a place. So I quit my job, sold my house and went to get a degree. The whole time I was at uni I thought I would come out the other side and end up back as a writer again, but I managed to land a job at Evolution Studios. Before I knew it I was working in games, surrounded by very real people, and we were making a launch title for PlayStation 3.
Starting out as a “designer”, you could say you were in the thick of game ‘design’. But that word can be an incredibly broad descriptor. What sorts of things were you responsible for? What was in your realm of responsibility?
I’d say that systems and mechanics design have always been my thing. On MotorStorm 1 most of the paper design was done before I joined the project, so my main responsibility was designing and scripting AI behaviours. I helped script the logic that determined how the other cars reacted to the player, the way they would ram into the player’s vehicle, block them, overtake them, things like that. I tuned that behaviour to help create a difficult curve across all the races in the game. I also designed and implemented the rider combat, where the ATV and Bike riders could punch each other from their vehicles. I got to help tune and tweak the race difficulty, so I’m at least partly to blame to any particularly difficult races (sorry everyone). On the second MotorStorm (Pacific Rift) I continued with AI behaviours, but also designed a bunch of other areas like the game structure, online matchmaking system and set pieces. I went back to this kind of design on WipEout 2048 too, which was really fun.
Would you say there are a lot of things about game design that folks outside of game development don’t understand?
Yeah I guess that’s true, but it’s like with anything you create for a living, you just have to see it in far more detail than someone who just consumes it. For most people, it’s difficult to see the difference between ideas and designs. For example, an idea could be ‘this game should have a regenerating health system’. But the design for that regenerating health system needs to be thought through in a lot more detail, like determining how long after damage has stopped being taken before it starts to regenerate, how quickly it regenerates, if there are player actions that can cause it to regenerate more quickly or more slowly etc.
That system then needs to be tuned with whatever causes damage in the first place, and so on. Once the design is created, it then has to be implemented and then starts the long process of tuning it and tweaking it. What you’re left with after a long and often arduous journey is a small piece of design that, if you’ve done your job right, will just become part of the overall experience.
How is designing a racing game unique when compared to other genres?
Well the great thing about racing games is that the core concept is already designed for you; it’s a race from one point to another, and whoever gets to the end first wins. So the key design challenge is what you do around that central rule-set that will allow you to set yourself apart from other racing games. It’s also a genre that tends not to rely so heavily on story, setting or character, so when it comes to overall gameplay it really has to be as flawless as possible.
MotorStorm in particular was a different kind of racer. One that had an emphasis on vehicle destruction and track hazards. How did that affect your approach to design?
Yeah MotorStorm was a challenge on a number of levels. We had these crazy tracks, often situated on top of gigantic mesas, covered in slippery mud with jumps and ramps bolted on. To make matters worse (or better, depending on your disposition), was the fact that we had so many vehicle types. You could find yourself zipping around on a little motocross bike while surrounded by big rigs and rally cars. To get things right meant nailing the track design and the vehicle handling, so they both went through a lot of iterations and play-testing. By the time we finished that game I think we could have raced around any of the tracks with our eyes shut.
Another challenge was trying to make something with a cinematic quality to the carnage without taking away the player’s sense of control or achievement. The way we approached this was to make sure the action was always centered on the player. We made sure there was plenty of chaos going on around the player between the AI controlled vehicles, while trying to keep the path relatively clear for the player early on while they learned the tracks. Then as the game progressed we just ramped it up. I think it definitely lead to some spectacular results.
You also worked on the WipEout series with WipEout 2048, a change of pace from MotorStorm. What sort of shifts in design did you have to accommodate for that?
Working on WipEout was a bit of a nerd out moment for me to be honest. I’d played the first one to death, usually while I should have been paying more attention to my college work, and I was a huge fan. Getting to actually work on a WipEout, and working in the same studio as some of the original team, was a real career highlight for me.
In terms of design, WipEout is a completely different animal to MotorStorm. The WipEout fans are some of the most dedicated, hardcore fans out there and they demand greatness. At the same time, we had to make a game that could appeal to more than just the hardcore so we could be successful. So the main challenge was creating a WipEout that had enough challenges for the hardcore, but also be accessible enough for other folks. We addressed this through customisable assists for the player, as well as a very deep set of challenges and modes to cater for every level of expertise.
The weapons in WipEout are also a huge deal, and they can really level the playing field (sometimes literally), so that was a huge design challenge compared to MotorStorm.
Being a member of Evolution Studios meant being a part of a large team. How does it feel now to be part of a smaller team like Wushu Studios in your role?
Sometimes, when you’re part of a large team, it can feel like you’re disconnected from other areas of development, like the audio department, or marketing, or the concept group or whatever. It’s not always a bad thing, as it allows you to focus, but it can be hard to really feel part of a cohesive team sometimes. Working for a smaller team like Wushu is very different because not only do you get to see every part of the process, but you get to just jump in and get your hands dirty in lots of areas. In my experience, the larger the studio the more room there is for niche specialism. In smaller studios, everyone just gets stuck in to get the job done. I find that kind of development really satisfying.
The road from the beginning up of your journey up to now has no doubt been a long one. For those interested in making a career in game design, what sort of advice would you give your younger self if you could go back?
If I could go back, I would have told myself to make sure I could code or script more. I’ve picked things up along the way, but when I see graduates now and what they’re able to do with scripting or coding it makes me realise what I was missing. A lot of the time I was limited to just writing documents and hoping that the coders and artists would buy into what I was describing and would make it as close to what I wanted as possible. In the end the key to being a good designer is your ability to communicate. You might have the best design in the world, but if you can’t communicate that to the rest of the team, it won’t go anywhere.
The best thing you can do is to remove as much room for ambiguity as possible, and the best way to do that is to be able to show, not tell. This might mean you learn to code or script (if you are able to do this, DO IT), so you can get a version of your idea in front of people. If you can’t code, there are plenty of simple prototyping tools out there that can help. If that’s not your bag, make it out of bits of cardboard and paper if you have to. The other thing I would say to anyone thinking of becoming a design is to find an area of design that really excites you and become an expert. Could be UX is your thing, or narrative design, or systems or mechanics. Whatever it is, become an expert in it and some studio out there will need your skills.
Thanks again for the chat Mike. Alright, last one, but a fun one: favorite game of all time and why.
Wow, that’s a tough one! I think I’d struggle to even give a concise top ten to be honest! If it were down to sheer number of hours played, it would have to be something like World of Warcraft, Diablo or maybe Half-Life. If it were just on the basis of strong design, it could be Resident Evil 2, Ocarina of Time or Shadow of the Colossus. But, even though it’s hard to say it’s my favourite game of all time, one that definitely influenced me a lot was Journey from That Game Company. I thought they managed to create something that was really elegant and extremely well put together. I think the best design happens within constraints, and That Game Company set some extremely tight constraints on Journey, with really minimalist visuals, gameplay and multiplayer communication. What they managed to deliver really stayed with me for a long time, and it made me reconsider what video games could do.
Thanks for the chat Mike.