A Conversation with… Francois Chaput

This time A Conversation with… tracked down Francois Chaput from our 5th graduating class, Francois is working at BioWare Edmonton.

 

  • Tell me about what you are doing now in the Games Industry

I’m a Senior Level Designer at Bioware Edmonton. I recently shipped Dragon Age: Inquisition and it’s DLC Dragon Age: Inquisition: Jaws of Hakkon. Currently I’m leading level design on something unannounced.

  • How has this changed since you graduated?

When I graduated I started as a tester at Relic Entertainment in Vancouver. I worked 8 months in that role before I had an opportunity to try my hand at Level Design.

I’ve since been a designer for just over 7 years on games like Dawn of War II and it’s 2 expansions, Space Marine, Company of Heroes 2, and Dragon Age: Inquisition.

 

  • Can you describe a typical day in your office?

A typical day for me tends to be split in 2: mornings usually have quite a few meetings (planning meetings, review meetings, and scrum stand-ups), and my afternoon is usually where I get to work directly on the project. Breaking this down further, the idea is that the leads will meet in the morning and sync up about the project, and review the progress. We’ll then come up with feedback for our teams and ourselves that we then prioritize in our existing task lists. When I’m working directly with the game, I spend a lot of time working in FrostEd (EA/DICE’s editor software) where I am responsible for the co-ordination and implementation of my levels. This means I’ll also work closely with a partner from the writing team, art team, and cinematics team.

 

  • What’s the most fun thing you get to do? What’s the most stressful/challenging?

The most fun I have is seeing others play through my levels, seeing how they react and getting feedback.

The most challenging aspects are usually around time management and dependency management. With such a large team and so many moving parts, it’s important to be aware of anything that my team needs to deliver that is a bottleneck to others, and make sure we can deliver. The flip-side of this is true as well, and making sure that I am letting the other teams know when we are going to be dependent on them.

 

  • What games are you playing right now, and what elements have impressed you?

> Bloodborne: Bloodborne is the Game of the Year so far for me. It’s combat system was so disciplined and well balanced, and it’s gameplay systems all tied back into the vision for the entire game. It’s a very focused and polished experience where everything felt like it belonged and had a place. For me the result was that I became very absorbed by the experience. I also really like the size of the world space, I always prefer a smaller world that I can memorize and become intimate with, over large open worlds. It’s why I still think Batman: Arkham Asylum was the best in the series.

> Witcher 3: This game surprised me quite a bit after I wasn’t a very big fan of the first 2 Witcher games. Despite the world being so large that I forget about a particular spot after I leave it, I think they’ve delivered a very rich world that feels like a real world. I feel like I am there, inside the world, affecting the world. I also am liking the combat as well. I am playing this on the 2nd hardest difficulty as well which reduces the player’s ability to heal for free, something that I think adds a lot to the feel of the world and the consequences of your actions.

> Resident Evil HD: I should note that this is the first time I ever play the first Resident Evil game, so I’m not just talking through nostalgia. This game has really great puzzles that players must work out in order to progress through the mansion. Again, I really like the size of the playable space, when you encounter a new object or puzzle you can think back on your experience to that point and know where to return to. This makes it feel more gratifying with every puzzle that gets solved, or every new room that is discovered.

> Homeworld Remastered: I like this because I think it succeeded in being a remaster: it made accessible 2 games that were hard to find, while updating the graphics to looks as good as we remembered, and leaving the gameplay untouched as much as possible. I felt it showed good discipline and respect for the original games.

> Mario Kart 8: I love this game because I can play 1 race and be done within 5 minutes, and my wife loves to play with me. Having a game that my wife loves is huge because it’s difficult to find a lot of time on my own to play long single-player games.

 

  • What are some trends you see in upcoming games?

I see a few trends, some among AAA games and others among indy games.

AAA games are getting better at identifying the larger markets and appealing to them. They’re getting better at testing the consumer threshold (what makes them no longer willing to pay, what types of features appear to present higher value, how difficulty affects the amount of people willing to play). Video games are more and more mainstream and it’s because we’re learning what the masses want.

> Examples of this is that bigger is better. The bigger you can say your game is, the more attention it gets. Everybody’s making a bigger game than their last one (in terms of square footage), and this is always played-up as a selling feature.

> “Annualization” of franchises, while having a potential effect on quality, is yielding lucrative results for a few franchises. See Call of Duty for the best example (even though this has been going on for a few years now).

> More scripted, more cinematic. Games like Uncharted, Last of Us, Call of Duty and so on do extremely well also because people like spectacle. These games show really well at trade shows and are likely pretty great to market as well. These games are basically the exact opposite of the large open-world games, and tend to be relatively easy and short. But they’re easy to consume and that makes them desirable to a lot of people.

With that aim towards mass consumers becoming more and more important with AAA games with growing budgets and growing expectations from newer technology, many gamers are finding themselves drawn to more focused games. The kind that appealed to them back when games did not appeal so much to the mass population. This is creating what almost looks like an industry revolution with indy and crowd-funded games, where developers can be more experimental, or focus on smaller subsets of gamers and really cater to them. This results in quite a few old school gamers now preferring non-AAA games because lots of great games are coming from this (Minecraft being probably the best example).

One thing that is definitely becoming more and more important though across all games now is that accessibility is of paramount importance. Players need to be capable of playing just 5 minutes and getting some sort of fulfillment, and being able to walk away without losing progress.

 

  • What do you feel was the most valuable skill that you learned in the Game Design program at VFS?

The ability to receive feedback from anyone with an open mind. Getting feedback is like being given the answers for an exam while writing it. It’s incredibly valuable to be able to let go of pride attached to your work and be ready to receive criticism and feedback without defending your ideas. Not all feedback is going to be right, but in general if someone felt something was not fun, then it’s likely that there is something that can be improved. Furthermore, if it feels like a bug, then it is a bug. The game doesn’t ship with a copy of the designer with it to explain why something is the way it is, or to explain that players were expected to play a certain way, or to explain that “it’s not a bug, it’s intentional”. You build the game for an audience, not for yourself, and if the audience think something feels wrong or like a bug, then that’s how they will talk to their friends about your work.

A caveat to that advice though: take everything with a grain of salt. Sometimes you will already have plans in place to address something a different way, or sometimes 1 person will dislike something but 4 other people will love it. Other times a suggestion will be right in every way, but it could be a lot of effort for low payoff. Accept all feedback, identify the problems, choose the solutions.

 

  • If you could give a current student in Game Design some advice, what would it be?

I’d say it would be to build the best network possible. Both of the studios I’ve worked at (Relic Entertainment and Bioware) I’ve gotten into through connections I made at VFS. Shane Neville was a teacher who helped me get an interview at Relic, and Corey Gaspur was a classmate that I stayed in touch with after graduating.

 

 Thanks Francois, and best of luck on your unannounced project!