What can I say about these guys that hasn’t already been said? Stephen “Blue” Heaslip is the webmaster over at Blue’s News, and publisher of this here web ‘zine. Levelord is the mad genius level designer who has worked on such games as Duke Nukem 3D, Sin, and the Quake 1 mission pack, The Scourge of Armagon. Of all the screwball people I know in this industry, Levelord and Blue are really the two most deserving of the term “characters”. They’re both lots of fun, and as you’ll discover from this interview, they’re a lot of fun when put in a room together. I hope everyone out there enjoys this interview as much as everyone involved did in putting it together. A big thanks goes out to Levelord and Blue for this one. Enjoy! (For those curious, this interview was conducted at the hotel bar during the recent Frag 2 CPL event)
– Jason “loonyboi” Bergman, editor-in-chief.
Blue: A couple of beers…game going gold…
Levelord: Oh yeah…
Blue: So it doesn’t take much to make a man happy…just a beer and his game going gold.
Levelord: A little alcohol, and a game going gold. Actually, going gold…you know when you wake up and you’re in that semi-sleep state?
Blue: …and you’re not sure that it really happened?
Levelord: Yeah, I�m like “oh shit, in that level I should have done this…” and it’s too late now.
Blue: Do you have that? Once it’s gone out the door, do you have these second thoughts?
Levelord: Yeah, there’s always something broken, or not the way you wanted it…but then, like with the add-on pack, and Duke, I’m just like, what do I care now?
Blue: Is that what happened? Does it go away after awhile?
Levelord: If it’s not critical, yeah.
Blue: So do you fire up your old stuff and get really critical?
Levelord: Nah…never look at it.
Blue: You’re an interesting character in terms of stuff like that, because people love to ask level designers who their influences are –
Levelord: – never look at anything.
Blue: You never do?
Blue: Is that necessarily a good thing?
Levelord: For me it is…it’s just sort of my whole –
Blue: – individual taste? On one level, you look at that and say it kinda insulates you from what’s going on. I mean it certainly prevents you from plagiarizing.
Levelord: Yeah, that’s the whole thing. What you’re saying…on the first hand I�m limiting myself to the coolness that I would see in somebody else’s level, but I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to do what they’re doing. I suppose I think that I can keep up with the coolness.
Blue: Guess that puts a lot of pressure upon yourself to just…generate your own coolness.
Levelord: It’s the other way around. A lot of the time Tom [Mustaine, a fellow level designer at Ritual] will be playing something and I’ll be looking over his shoulder and I’ll think, “oh, that’s so cool” and it might be that I would actually have done that. I mean a lot of these ideas aren’t exactly like groundbreaking…like here’s a good example: Half-Life has that door…your typical door with a bar…you can only open it from one direction. Now in level designing terms, that’s brilliant because a lot of the time I want the player, once they’ve gotten to an area, to not be able to go back…
Blue: The one way door.
Levelord: The one way door, but I had never thought of that. So I will never do one of those doors.
Levelord: Because I saw it first.
Blue: You put that pressure on yourself.
Levelord: I just…I won’t do it. I hate thieving.
Blue: ‘A rip-off? It’s an homage!’ So you don’t go for the homage rationale, huh?
Levelord: What’s it called in the art world…appropriation.
Blue: I just find it remarkable, because there’s so much of that, ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ attitude in most people’s minds.
Levelord: I suppose it does cut both ways. So for me, I just can’t stand looking at other people’s stuff. Also for me, if it is something cool, like that door in Half-Life, it breaks my heart, because I didn’t think of that.
Blue: But then, don’t you ever get something where you’ve come up with something like the door in Half-Life, and somebody’s already done it but you didn’t know it?
Levelord: That’s fine.
Blue: Does anybody ever call you on that? Ever get, “hey, you ripped this off from so-and-so?”
Levelord: I haven’t yet. That to me is okay, because then I say that I did think of it, and a lot of those things do happen.
Blue: So where do you get your inspiration?
Levelord: Actually, no…not drugs. But like I said, that semi-sleep state where you’re kinda like drifting, and your mind is free.
Blue: Kind of a subconscious thing?
Levelord: And then a lot, and this is an important thing to say, is that a lot of the things in my levels are not mine. Robert Atkins, Michael Hadwin, Mark Dochterman, Jim Dose they’ll look at it, and say, ‘do this,’ and I’ll put it in, and then who do you think gets the credit?
Blue: But then you go back to them and give them suggestions for how the program should run…it’s called collaboration. It’s a team effort.
Levelord: In particular Robert…he’s really keen on, ‘make it do this here.’
Blue: Good input giver? Frustrated level designer?
Levelord: Actually, yeah…both he and Hadwin, and Beau Anderson too, have expressed interest in level design. So I�m like, ‘yeah, well if you teach me how to do those cool models, maybe we’ll trade.’
Blue: I was going to just say…is that something you aspire to?
Levelord: Yeah, the characters and the animations and stuff…that looks very cool. And when you look at what they’re doing on the screen, their editor, or whatever they use, it’s very similar. It’s polygons, and making them move…
Blue: You might be able to make that transition someday.
Levelord: I don’t know if I want to. The transition I want to make is…retirement.
Blue: I want to ask you about that. I’d be lying if it didn’t seem like your recent .plan update about Sin going gold didn’t display a certain degree of…burn out is not a fair word…is it burn out?
Levelord: Well, imagine…you can appreciate this, I’m with an office full of twenty year olds. And they keep just going, and going, and going…and so naturally for someone like me, the next logical step is just to do something like the Romero.
Blue: To become the ‘designer’ of the game?
Levelord: I just want to do a couple of levels, and let them all do the rest of the…well, when you see Sin, I guarantee you, most of the cool stuff will not be mine.
Blue: This is just continuing the trend of you being one of the most modest people ever to name themselves something like “Levelord“.
Levelord: It kills me to say that…I hide it well, but it kills me to say that.
Blue: Are you modest, or are you an egotist? You named yourself Levelord, didn’t you?
Levelord: Yeah, oh yeah.
Blue: That wasn’t like people saw your levels and said, ‘this guy is the lord of levels.’
Levelord: No…that was way back with Blood before I had even gotten hired to do Duke Nukem…but it just sounded cool.
Blue: It does sound cool. But I think it sounds cool because…you don’t come across that way. It seems sort of surprising that you would name yourself that.
Levelord: Well, the word “lord” itself, it’s not like ‘almighty,’ it’s not like ‘god,’ it’s ‘lord’. It’s high stature, but not…too high.
Blue: A humble form of egotism, if you look at it that way.
Levelord: It’s funny to me to look at it…egotism for level design…why is that? Think of all the big ego game designers you know, barring a few, that are level designers.
Blue: Why is that? Why is there this megalomaniac egotist thing?
Levelord: I have no idea, there’s just some correlation.
Blue: Maybe it has something to do with that being God, creating reality out of nothing kind of thing.
Levelord: It might be, it actually might be. Also, up until now, and now it’s not legitimate to say this, but up until now, the level designers really were the ‘game designers’. We did everything that brought the game together, we were like the director, the producer, we were in there making everything happen…
Blue: Most first person shooters don’t seem to credit ‘game designers’. They have level designers, and modelers, and programmers but there’s nobody who’s like, ‘it’s my job to make the game itself’.
Levelord: At Ritual, we’ll never have a ‘game designer’. Because that just takes away the credit from everyone else. Like I said, all the members of Ritual, they have a lot of input into my levels, and it’s not fair to have some producer or game designer say, “I made this game.” No you didn’t, we did.
Blue: There’s no hope for talentless schmoes like myself to come in and grab all the glory?
Levelord: No, perhaps it’s just an egotistical title that bothers us. We have a project manager, the person who keeps everyone in place, and tries to keep the project on its feet.
Blue: Well, that implies that the project manager’s managing a project, not necessarily that they designed it. They didn’t design the project, they’re just keeping it on track.
Levelord: Correct. And I think you would really hurt yourself as a company if you had one person, think of it, one person, coming up with all the cool ideas? That couldn’t happen.
Blue: Interesting…on one level you can say that it’s one person responsible for all the ideas, but then on another level it’s one person responsible for the flow and the feel and the continuity. Is it hard, being a collaboration, establishing that continuity?
Levelord: Oh yeah…yes. Not in the game industry, but look at all the great Monty Python skits. If you ever read anything about when they were a group, there were different factions. The ones that came from Oxford, the ones that came from Cambridge, I forget who was who. But they just bitterly fought, and had egos –
Blue: – and it comes across as smart.
Levelord: Yeah, but none of them are worth anything to me. Together…The Beatles, there’s just a whole bunch of examples where together they were brilliant, and they just hated each other. I mean we’ve got some internal conflicts that you wouldn’t believe.
Blue: Well, this leads to a segue, you guys started as the pilgrims leaving oppression to conquer the new world –
Levelord: Nah…I feel so bad for that. Actually, it’s not like that at all.
Blue: No, but in a sense it was just a bunch of guys who were striking off on their own to do their own thing –
Levelord: – It’s egos that wanted to go somewhere else…
Blue: But now, it’s like you’re revolving doors turned the other way…you’ve got a lot of guys going out the out door.
Levelord: Most of the guys who left, like Charlie [Brown] and Gary [McTaggart] who left, those were top notch ace programmers, I wondered from the very beginning, why are you here, working for us? Why aren’t you out with your own company? Especially programmers. Those are the truly elite. You can get any schmuck to do levels, you can get any schmoe to do art, but it’s the programming, the engine programming –
Blue: I know what you’re saying…it’s a rarefied air, Gary and Charlie are sort of in that Carmack realm of engine programming –
Levelord: So their leaving was to me obvious, and I was upset, and it’s like, why did you guys even come here, when you knew that you would go eventually. And why did you play with us like that. And again, a few people have come and gone, but most of it was egos, not fitting in.
Blue: Finding that balance in the collaboration.
Levelord: And [a] recent leaving was Charlie [Wiederhold]…I met him at a Fort-Worth Duke marathon thing about three, four years ago, with these eyes, like ‘how can I do levels?’ But he’s dying to do Duke Nukem…if he gets paid three cents, he’ll be happy.
Blue: But that struck me…considering that most of you guys left Apogee/3DRealms, to come to Hipnotic at the time, and now Ritual, and there was definitely…I don’t know if it was bad blood, but there was certainly some comments made back and forth between you guys –
Levelord: Well, I still am begrudged at my name being taken off my work. That really to me, is not cool.
Blue: Now, this was for work on Duke 3D?
Levelord: There were four levels in Duke. And one of them was my very best Duke work, and it has someone else’s name on it. And to this day, you go out and you buy the CD, and my name is not on it.
Blue: For the record, what are the levels?
Levelord: My favorite one was Pig Sty.
Blue: Pig Sty?
Levelord: Yeah, Pig Sty was my ultimate…and Stacey�s Triple X…and what were the other two? I don’t remember now…I don’t know the names…don’t know if the names have changed.
Blue: So you guys leave Apogee/3DRealms, and there’s some angry words back and forth, and now Charlie leaves Ritual to go back there, it’s like a ‘man bites dog’ story.
Levelord: It’ll be interesting to see what happens with Charlie over there. Well, I�m sure they’ve changed over there…when I was with them, they didn’t have money, like they do now. They’ve got tons of money. And a lot of my grumbling was simple ergonomics. My desk, I thought, was a piece of shit. As I looked across at a whole empty office, thinking why am I sitting here at a doorway, with people going back and forth every fucking minute. Breaking my concentration. And little things like that…I had to ask three times, for a ZIP drive, and I never got one. Just so I could take work home to work on the weekends, and I had to go out and buy my own, a $200 ZIP drive. But most of it, I’ll be honest, was professional, obviously. I wanted to own my own company.
Blue: So you’re one of the owners of Ritual?
Levelord: Yeah, there’s seven, and then Beau is another…eight. He’s got part ownership. Beau has been there since it started, and he gets everything done before we even ask for it, and he’s there seven days a week, so if we see that kind of dedication, well, we want to reward it.
Blue: So it’s not a closed deal where if you weren’t here at the beginning you can’t get in.
Levelord: Right. Especially if it grows. We hope to spread out, especially with the egos. A lot of us want to go different ways, and once we get big enough, we’ll be able to have three or four teams, something like Ion Storm. Working on different things, and they’ll have a piece of that game that they’re working on.
Blue: Now as we go off into this future, does part of it entail this retirement that you dream of?
Levelord: I plan on retiring at 45.
Blue: 45? And you’re how old now?
Levelord: 40. I’m going to be 41 next month. So yeah…four or five more years. What I�d love to do is have enough where life is a hobby. Like, do the Romero. And I still miss the east coast…New England. If I had my way, I�d move to like Westchester Country, Greenwich in Connecticut, open up a little shop, and just…like a hobby. I don’t care if I make money, I�m just spitting out levels, or whatever it takes.
Blue: A lot of people who get transplanted down here, a lot of northeasterners are not happy about living in Dallas.
Levelord: It’s October 31st, and it’s 80 degrees down here.
Blue: It’s warm. It’s damn warm.
Levelord: I walked six blocks, and I was drenched in sweat. Dallas is nice, the people are nice, the economy’s great. But there’s nothing to do, there’s no mountains, there’s no ocean, there’s nothing to do.
Blue: It’s a very flat place. So you’re from Connecticut. Where they don’t allow children, that’s the old Mel Brooks joke. A 2000 year old man…he comes from Connecticut, Connecticut. They don’t allow children.
Levelord: [laughs] Carl Reiner.
Blue: Yeah. So they made you move out as a child…I have a tough time picturing you as a child…maybe it’s the pirate get-up.
Levelord: I feel as though I’ve reverted back to my childhood.
Blue: Maybe that’s it…you’re certainly not a stodgy individual.
Blue: stodgy. But you maintain a youthful thing…is that what happened, is it all the 21 year olds?
Levelord: I don’t have a wife, I don’t have kids, I don’t have a mortgage.
Blue: Are any of those things in your future?
Levelord: I don’t know. Again, the 45 year old thing. What would be great is if you have so much money it doesn’t matter what you look like, or how old you are, you just rent a girl for five years. Prenuptial agreement that she’ll leave –
Blue: One of those things where you’re walking down the beach with her, and everyone turns their heads and goes, ‘he’s got money.’ Or is it from that movie The Edge, ‘that man has a plane.’
Levelord: So, I have no idea…I don’t think they’ll be kids in it for me. I mean you’re old enough, isn’t that hard to imagine?
Blue: I can’t picture myself telling them what to do. Because I know what I would have said…frightening.
Levelord: I think you have to be young and stupid to do that. Again though, if you had enough money, she stays at home, raises the kids with a nanny or two.
Blue: Or she goes away with the kids and you stay at home with a nanny or two.
Blue: Just a thought. Just an alternative approach. So what does a 40 year old transplanted New Englander do in a flat space for fun?
Levelord: One who lived in LA for ten years, and New York for one.
Blue: Is there anything for you to do for fun? Is there nothing here for you?
Levelord: I’ve been drinking…smoking again.
Blue: You had quit –
Levelord: In January, yeah.
Blue: Is quitting before crunch time a mistake? Is this advice for future level designers?
Levelord: This crunch time in particular…I think it was because of a non ending four or five years, from Duke Nukem to the add-on to Sin, with maybe a two to three week gap between the three projects, but otherwise no weekends. Not a single Sunday, a single Labor Day, I don’t know what a three day weekend is. And that’s not to complain, it’s because this is what I want to do, and I have to be able to get paid for it. So I do it when I work, and I do it when I don’t work. But I’m starting to realize that you’ve got to, and this is why in every major religion, God says to take one day off a week, you can’t work one day a week.
Blue: It’s the burn out.
Levelord: It’s the burn out. Yeah, you have to do something else.
Blue: God knew about burn out back then. And we thought it was one of those trendy 80’s words.
Levelord: I lived with a psyche-tech for seven years…and I started getting like cabin fever. So while she was going to school I was picking up on all the clinical signs of depression, manic depression, schizophrenia.
Blue: So you know what to look out for?
Levelord: [laughs] So I know what to look out for.
Blue: Self medicate when necessary?
Levelord: Yeah, with the smoking, I had gotten to the point [where] I was making meatloaf at home so I could take it to work for lunch, and was stirring it in a bowl, and it was obviously too small, with oatmeal, and hamburger and onions and stuff. And this one particular chunk fell out like for the third time, and I took the whole bowl, like two pounds of hamburger, and threw it across the room. Smashed it against the wall. Age of Empires…I’ve broken two CDs of that already. Fucking game wouldn’t let me win, so I hit the CD thing, took it, and threw it across the room.
Blue: I can’t picture you flinging a CD across the room.
Levelord: I get real childish. Temper tantrum, is what it is.
Blue: That is interesting.
Levelord: And then one Saturday night about three weeks ago, was just drinking beers at home, just got up, put on my pants, went out to the store, [and] bought a pack of cigarettes. Without even thinking. This is it, I’m smoking.
Blue: You plan on quitting again?
Levelord: I hope so. I almost thought today I’d do it –
Blue: – and here we are.
Levelord: I need a couple of days.
Blue: So how long did crunch time last for Sin?
Levelord: Too long, and this is always the way it happens in games, is that you’re constantly putting new stuff in. The last third of the game is definitely crunch time, when you think you’re in the finish.
Blue: The last third of the game? You’ve been at it for what, like 20 months?
Levelord: Well think about it, we were supposed to release what, in the early part of this year. So, at that point, or right before that point, we were thinking, ‘okay, hit the guns, we gotta go, hit the back burner.’ And then something happened, like the Quake 2 code was late. Something happened.
Blue: I was going to say, there must have been a huge set back in there somewhere.
Levelord: A real big set back. I think that’s probably what killed us most. Because there was a lull for about three months. In fact, I had just quit smoking back in January. So there was this lull for about three months, where the programmers didn’t want to work on it, because they knew they were waiting for Quake 2 code. And I’m sitting here with levels that I’ve got to try and get done for E3, or whatever minor deadlines there are, and I just flipped out. All the programmers were over looking at the new office space, I went over there, and was just maniacally screaming, ‘what are you guys doing in here we got programming to do, you’re sitting in here looking at new office space’ and they were like, ‘suuure Levelord‘.
Blue: [laughs] I meant to ask you about that when we were talking about the name. Because you are one of a few people, and I kind of tend to do this, which is just go by ‘Blue,’ and certain people like yourself and Zoid, have actually gone to the point of like, ‘just don’t even call me by my given name.’ Is that to avoid stalkers and stuff?
Levelord: Yeah, well I doubt that it’ll ever get that big, although it could, who knows. No, for me it’s professional. Like when I’m with you and we’re talking, Richard is my name, but when I’m like online, or doing anything, I want to be known professionally [as Levelord]. Remember when you were a kid, and I was a kid on the east coast, we all had nick names. I’m not sure why, but it gave you a different kind of…like the Indians have an animal name. I can talk about The Levelord, and not sound quite so egotistical.
Blue: Unless you do it that way in the third person.
Blue: So you haven’t had any stalking incidents?
Levelord: No…has anybody? Have you had any?
Blue: I think by now you should have…but I guess not.
Levelord: The one I’m truly worried about, is not right now, but five years from now, some bible belt parent, saying, ‘my kid is mentally disturbed because of your game.’
Blue: You think that’s a factor? People get mentally disturbed by these games?
Levelord: The best analogy I use is the stairway giving you the heart attack. No, no…it’s the lifetime of eating pizzas and smoking and drinking –
Blue: So that kid up on the roof with a sniper rifle isn’t due to –
Levelord: He would have found something else to further his dementia. I know for me personally, it’s definitely a release. When I go in a deathmatch…I feel better afterwards.
Blue: You do deathmatch.
Levelord: Okay, I work. Playtesting. I am lousy so I don’t –
Blue: You said that, but I’m thinking it’s one of those things where you’re setting everybody up.
Levelord: I’m really…I’m so bad I’m proud.
Blue: How can you be so bad when you’ve been doing this for –
Levelord: Oh, I’ve got a funky keyboard configuration I refuse [to change]. I still don’t know how to touch type.
Blue: Neither do I.
Levelord: I was a software engineer. Since 1977 I’ve been with computers, and I still don’t know how to type.
Blue: You worked with computers in ’77?
Levelord: Yeah, it was hard.
Blue: You were in the Military, right?
Blue: Doing like radar, and sonar?
Levelord: Sonar. Like remember the guy on Red October that was the guy with the bald cap that was watching the screen in the submarine…it’s not sending out a ping, it’s listening to sounds like your ear does. But I was on the land. On an island.
Blue: Listening for submarine pickups?
Blue: You ever find any?
Levelord: Oh yeah.
Blue: Those cold war days? You ever go on like red alert and almost press the button and stuff?
Levelord: Defcon 3, I forget if they go up or down, but if we were like two notches up, they’d launch a nuclear type submarine, and we had no idea what it was. We’d get this unidentifiable signal, and we wouldn’t know if it was Soviet, and we’d have admirals coming in…yeah, it was real cool.
Blue: Now that’ll get you smoking.
Levelord: Oh, I loved that.
Blue: [laughs] Man, makes this all seem kind of dull in comparison, doesn’t it?
Levelord: Yeah, doesn’t it?