A Conversation With… GD Alumni John Brunkhart

John Brunkhart is a graduate of the 14th Game Design class at VFS. John graduated back in 2010 with Honours, and won awards for best board game design, best level design, best flash game (class award), and the rare ‘Follow the Leader Award’ for performing with dedication and excellence in the GD program and inspiring his classmates to do the same. He was snapped up quickly by Volition Studios in Champaign, Illinois to be an Associate Designer. Recently we had a chance to catch up with him…

What inspired you to come to study game design?

I had been talking with a friend about an MMO (City of Heroes) we both played, and how we would improve it. On a whim, I went to the publisher’s website and saw they had an opening for a game designer. I jokingly suggested that I would get a job as a designer there, work my way up, and fix the game from the inside. She said, dead-serious “You should do that. You should apply.” I figured I didn’t have a chance, but decided to take the design test, anyway. As I took the test, I suddenly realized ‘Hey … I can do this!’. On the drive home from work (I’d taken the test there after hours), I felt more energized than I had in years, and realized I needed to be working in game design, not where I was. I almost got the job, but didn’t … but by that point I knew what I wanted to do with myself, so I went to school to polish my skills and better my chances at landing a position.

John’s dog “Trooper” fills in while he takes a break

While in the program, you proved your love of games and dedication to learning design was deep, winning a number of awards while you were here. Can you tell us a bit about your experience at VFS and what it meant to you?

I’ll be honest, many of the game-design theory aspects I knew before coming to VFS, through long years of gaming. But I knew these things on sort of a gut level, I didn’t have anything supporting me that these gut feelings were usually right. VFS provided a level of confirmation that the stuff I already –thought- I knew about game design was actually valid … people with industry experience were receptive to my ideas, and could guide me in areas where I was off or otherwise was missing the mark. While I also learned a great deal of nuts-and-bolts technical skills with tools while I was there, the biggest thing I gained was confidence. I’m not a very assertive person, or often a very confident one, and my year at VFS was something of a crucible … a very intense learning/collaborative experience that proved to me that I –could- do the job, keep pace with guys half my age and five times my energy level, and that my ideas were worthy of consideration and could enter the arena of ideas that is game design and not immediately get torn apart.

What was the biggest challenge of being at VFS?

The schedule was pretty grueling at times, and I became more familiar with $1-a-slice pizza, super-sized energy drinks, and the vending machine guy than I’d ever hoped to be, and I learned that I –can- sleep on my knees with my face on the seat of a chair (crunch time, yay!). That said, the biggest challenge was learning to work collaboratively in a group … I’m sort of an ivory-tower type that likes to work on my projects in isolation and then present them for consideration only when they’re done. Needless to say, that doesn’t fly at VFS when you get later into the year and have to work on your Flash and Final Project teams. Learning to find the balance so that your own ideas get heard, without stomping on the creativity of those around you and making sure THEIR ideas are heard as well … that’s hard … particularly when you’ve ALL been sleeping in chairs for a week and you’re all grumpy. BUT … it’s an absolutely critical skill that a designer MUST have if he or she is to be successful in industry … much of my job is acting as a coordinator between multiple disciplines, and learning to balance everyone’s opinions vs. your own vision of the game in progress is crucial. VFS was excellent practice for that.

You switched career paths at a time that conventional thought would consider risky, what advice would you give to anybody who might want to do the same thing, but who is perhaps less brave than you are?

If Game Design is something you want to do, you’ll know. If you could spend your life getting paid to play video games, but you’d still be unsatisfied and want to make them, then don’t doubt that you should be a designer. Know not only what you want, but why you want it … maybe the reasons you want to be a designer could be satisfied by another job, maybe not … but if you know that being a game designer is your heart’s desire, find a way to do it … make an indie game, become a tester for a studio, do informational interviews … trust me, you won’t mind the temporary hassles and setbacks it will take once you know your goal and are moving toward it. The biggest obstacle IS fear … taking the first step to turning your life upside-down … once you’ve made that step, don’t go back … keep moving toward your goal … EVERYTHING you face from there on out is easier than that first step, and will feel right. And should it all come to ruin and disaster? Disaster is never as bad as your fear of it, and is overcome one day at a time. And it’s STILL better than sitting immobile wishing for something but doing nothing about it. Nobody has infinite days, don’t waste them by being too afraid to make a change and then end up wondering what might have been. It sounds trite, but just do it … I bet you won’t regret it.

What have you learned about game design and your own particular passion since you started working in the industry?

At school, we spent a fair amount of time just coming up with game ideas (and then invariably pitching them). That’s an important part of a project, but to be honest, you’re going to spend most of your time trying to hold on to the ideas you come up with in the first third of a project and making sure that some permutation of them finds expression in the final game. You’re not a soloist, you’re a player in an orchestra, and a lot of your time is going to be spent hashing out differences between yourself and others, and between others and others … and these people are all going to be as smart and talented as you, which makes it especially challenging in ways, and rewarding in others once you know you can trust them to do the right thing by the game and they extend the same courtesy to you … very fulfilling. Some designers have a passion to create exhilarating experiences, others want to create awe or wonder with their worlds/levels. I learned that I’m the kind of designer that wants to challenge players to move beyond their comfort zone and have their choices matter, to face setbacks, but ultimately feel they’ve earned their reward. That makes me the ‘tough love’ designer at my studio, and I’m sometimes in conflict with designers that value other things more highly (‘flow’, ‘player exhilaration’, ‘immersion’, etc) … finding a way to balance my priorities with those of others is always a challenge, but it lets me know I care very deeply about giving the player meaningful challenges and choices, when I find myself asserting myself to fight for them.

What the most important thing you’ve learnt since graduating VFS?

Listen, listen, listen. You’re never the smartest person in the room, so listen to what others are saying, and what they’re not saying. If you do your best to give other people what they want, they’ll usually do the same for you, and you’ll end up able to get more of your ‘vision’ baked into the game than if you spend all your time trying to win others to your point of view. You can’t make a game by yourself (rare exceptions notwithstanding), so learn to listen to and respect the opinions of those you need to work with to make one.

How has your education from VFS helped you in your current job?

Strangely, it’s helped me most in areas not directly related to game design. At VFS, we were exposed to many different disciplines (level design, 3D modeling, audio, animation, etc). I’m a systems designer, which actually WASN’T particularly emphasized at VFS, save in the analog gaming classes, so I don’t use a lot of it in MY day-to-day work… but because I understand a bit of what it takes to animate or texture a model, or to mix audio, I can talk with the audio designers, animators, prop artists, and not be completely mystified. I can interface with people more easily, understand what work they might have to do to satisfy a request I make (and can temper my requests accordingly), and I can converse with them more easily about the work required. As working with different disciplines is the bread-and-butter of a designer’s typical day, the ability to communicate with more expertise with many more people on the team than I could if I hadn’t gone to VFS is greatly valued, and makes my job a lot easier … and my co-workers appreciate that I understand what they do and am not the typical ‘clueless designer’ asking for things that are difficult to deliver.

What are you working on now, and what about it are you enjoying the most, or are most proud of contributing?

I’m finishing up work on Saints Row IV. The game has had a long and winding road to completion, and has gone through several different permutations, mostly brought on by the instability brought on by the needs of our former struggling publisher (THQ) and then shifting, in the final months, to a new parent company. I started out as the weapons/combat/AI person, the only systems designer on the team … then as the project grew, more and more people came on board and bit by bit, my job got focused pretty much down to weapons and ambient spawning. It was hard to give up responsibilities for things, but it was for the best… SR4 is a much bigger game than SR3, and there’s no way any one systems guy could have covered it all. So I’m now primarily a weapons and combat designer. Combat in Saints Row is pretty crazy, and now we’re adding aliens, superpowers, and –really- wild weapons … trying to keep that all balanced is very hard, but rewarding when you do it right. I’m proud of the fact that I got almost all my weapons reviewed and iterated –before- crunch hit, freeing people to work on other things in crunch. I’m also very pleased with the breadth of weapon types I was able to get into the game, so that there’s at least one to satisfy just about any style of gameplay. Not every weapon is for everyone, and I’m happy that I was able to not only maintain but also greatly expand weapons diversity from that available in SR3, particularly when there’s always pressure to make weapons more similar and homogenous for ease of balance/debugging.

Saints Row IV is part of a massively popular and successful series, can you tell us some of the unique features of this edition?

See, this is where I’m glad I’m not a producer … I have no idea what I’m allowed to talk about yet or not. Most of the stuff I’m safe to talk about … aliens, superpowers, you’re the President, blah-blah-blah… is already out there. Your superpowers and weapons are customizable (in both appearance and function), and I don’t think that’s been brought out enough … we’re all about customization in Saints Row, and that carries through to this game. There’s been some talk that this is just an ‘add-on’ to SR3, given that we’re using some content from a cancelled expansion pack, and I do want to dispel that perception. SR4 has had pretty much the entire studio working on it for a couple of years now, and it’s got a ton of new features and content. The city has been given a top-to-bottom overhaul, the gameplay and city traversal couldn’t be more different with the addition of superpowers, and there’s boatloads of side missions and optional quests outside of the critical mission path. A lot of really talented people have been working really hard for a long time to put this together, and I hope a lot of people are going to love it. I’ll leave you with three slightly-secret words that should make anyone with a mind to causing mayhem happy and speak for themselves … Black Hole Gun. Carry on.

What are some of the challenges to keeping a popular series like this fresh?

Well, for Saints Row, it’s always a question of how you’ll outdo the one before. SR1 was like what GTA might have been if it hadn’t left the sandbox-feel behind to do more story-driven games. SR2 was definitely much more over-the-top and outrageous. Then SR3 came and we had all the action and craziness turned up to 11 … driving around the city with a tiger in your car, cyberspace missions, etc. So when you get to SR4, and you’ve already turned it up to 11, what now? Turn it up to 13? If your gameplay is already on the bleeding edge in terms of outrageousness, chaos, and player freedom, what do you do? Rather than turn it up even higher, we had to broaden the players’ abilities and options … that’s where superpowers came in. And then, to threaten a superpowered player, we added the aliens, whose weaponry and abilities hopefully provide a suitable challenge to our new, hyper-powerful characters. When a game has as few self-imposed limits as Saints Row, to be honest, keeping it focused, rather than keeping it fresh, is the real challenge. Hopefully, we’ve succeeded at both.

John Brunkhart’s final project at VFS was the adventure game Premonition, click HERE to check it out. Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions John, and best of luck with Saint’s Row IV.