Gamasutra: Playing Catch Up with Paul Steed

Gamasutra: Playing Catch Up with Paul Steed

November 28, 2005 | By Frank Cifaldi

Today’s Playing Catch-Up, a weekly column that dares to speak to notable video game industry figures about their celebrated pasts and promising futures, speaks to former id and Origin Software artist Paul Steed, famous for his outspoken nature and contributions to games such as Quake II, and finds out just what he’s been up to since leaving the House of Doom.

id’s Ego

“Kevin Cloud said it was time for me to go,” Steed told Gamasutra, regarding his termination from id Software. “Essentially, a lot of us internally wanted to make Doom 3, and two-thirds of the management did not. And I thought to myself, ‘You know what, this isn’t quite working out.’ It was kind of time for me to move on.”

“id is like any other game company; it’s dysfunctional. You choose to deal with it or you choose to move on. In the end I wanted to support what I thought was best for the company, and it got me fired.” Steed still speaks fondly of his time at the publisher. “[id] gave me visibility, it made people interested in me. Without id I wouldn’t have the career that I do. With id I was such a geeked out fanboy that it was a dream come true kind of thing. To leave there was kind of hard to understand, but in the end I didn’t have to understand, because it wasn’t my company. If you can’t change the company you work for, then leave.”

“Back then it was a different industry than it is now. It was kind of fun. The industry now is so different in the sense that it’s about really big money, the big players, not the little players anymore. Everybody that gets a one hit wonder wants to get funding and do their own company.”

Paul Steed Forms His Own Company

“When I left id, I tried to found my own company,” said Steed, referring to the short-lived Pummel Studios. “I talked to a bunch of strong tech guys, and none of them measured up to what I was looking for. I needed someone that I could communicate with, that believed in code like I believed in art. Business technology and art to me are the most important aspects of making a game. Some people say it’s design, but I have this oldschool belief that there’s really only programmers and artists, and those guys are design-oriented.”

“It Didn’t feel right, starting my own company, so it was pretty easy for Alex St. John to convince me to go to WildTangent.”

Going Off on a Wild Tangent

“It was a change, going from Dallas to Seattle. I did a game called Betty Bad, which was kind of an homage to Tempest. I designed it, did the character art and a lot of production design. It was a prety small team, but the idea was to get a game that would fit in about 5 megs. It ended up being about 35. The game took about six months to produce, and was supposed to be episodic. Each episode she goes about a change, for instance Betty started out with short hair and a small amount of armor. She had one gun that shot different kinds of ammo, whcih was an idea I had at id. It was good to experiment and play around with that.”

“And after that, or rather during, I was doing these visualizers for [popular MP3 software] WinAmp, this plugin where you have 3D dancing girl at about 10,000 polygons. Back in 2000, that was pretty respectable. There were lots of bounce physics on those. I came up with the proper solution to the breast bouncing one night over seven Guinnesses with a waitress. I showed her my laptop, and what I was working on, and she happily jumped and bounced for me.”

Hollywood Pug Forever

“After I left WildTangent, I did more contracted dancing girls. They were pretty popular. In-between I did some gigs for Warner Bros. and Sony, and got jacked into the Hollywood space. They wanted something that was real-time downloadable, so I animated Frank the Pug from Men In Black 2, doing a rendition of ‘I Will Survive.’ It ended up on the first run of the DVD. I also did a Huntress visualizer for WB for a TV show [Birds Of Prey] that kind of bombed. After that, I talked to George Broussard at 3D Realms about helping him with Duke Nukem Forever. This was around the end of 2002. I didn’t necessarily want to get caught up in that whole bad boy rock developer thing like I did at id, so I didn’t go for it.”

Think-Tanking the 360

“After that I ended up being the Creative Director at Advance Technology Group at Microsoft, which is kind of like the think tank for Xbox. They came at me pretty hard, and I could never really see myself working for Microsoft. When you’ve got a family to consider, though, you kind of have to think of them, too.”

“It was a great time at Xbox, if you go to you’ll see all the demos and stuff I did there. I would sit down with all the engineers, come up with a list of what the 360 could do, and then I would come up with ideas and kind of exploit those technological things.”

“The demos were to show off to developers and consumers what the 360 could do. So we got the totally pimped out ATI video cards and put together a PC with the specs we thought would be in the console, and showed it off at GDC 2004.”

“Basically, my role at Xbox was to be the lone creative voice in the land of the creatively challenged. I used to joke that I was the token game celebrity, everyone else was living breathing Microsoft celebrities, and they didn’t know sh*t about videogames. There was this attitude where guys like J Allard were considered demigods, but there was a guy named Frank Savage, one of the best I’ve ever worked with, and his opinion on games didn’t matter. When he says you’re doing something wrong, you should listen to him. They had this attitude that people aren’t accepting their way of things yet, but they will.”

“Eventually, it got to the point where I was going to do a demo with James Cameron on Battle Angel. I spent a year with him, showing off the power of the 360 with James Cameron’s upcoming movie character. And it was just one of those things where I said, ‘This is why I’m here. If this ever goes away, I have no reason to be here.’ Well, they ended up killing it, for stupid reasons, so I said, ‘You know what? I think I’m going to leave.'”

The Production End

Today, Steed functions as Creative Director at Atari. “I always wanted to work with a publisher, in the sense that I want to affect games and make them better. I think it would be putting 14 years of development knowledge to good use. As a director I get to look at titles, and help guide the vision for it a little bit. Creative Director, to me, that’s just an art director with more pull and responsibility.”

“I’ve only been here for three months, but when I go back to making games…I tell you, it’s so enlightening on this end. For example when you make a game, a lot of developers have this process where it’s like, ‘Let’s get this really rough design in, let’s work out the gameplay, put in little stick figures, and then make another pass where they actually work, and then another with final textures.’ But that doesn’t work, the publisher needs excitement. The publisher needs to see everything working. So I say, divide the game into 1/3. Take that first third of the game and make it f*cking sing. Make it perfect, make it look good, then work on the other 2/3. It gives the press and the publisher something to focus on.”

“In the future when I do a game again – and I will – I’ll be able to influence that sort of tactical planning. And that is so important, because especially with developers, we don’t understand all the issues, we don’t plan enough for publisher support. So here I help bring the perspective as a developer to the publisher. People have called me a traitor but it’s like, look, if your game doesn’t sell because it’s late or it sucks or whatever, I don’t get paid. Every publisher, to me, needs this level of representation.”

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