An Interview with Game Design Instructor Chris Mitchell

Instructor Christopher Mitchell trains his body and his mind

Winning the Best Instructor and Best Course award in his first year of teaching at Vancouver Film School’s Game Design program, Chris Mitchell became an idol amongst students very quickly. Currently, he teaches Game Theory, Pre-Production Techniques and Project Design. I interviewed him him recently for my Game Journalism class assignment. All in all, it was a very nice interview. I got to know him better, and also got some good advice, which I would now like to share with all of you.

Hi Chris! First of all, I really appreciate your time, so thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Hopefully, this will be an opportunity for everyone to get to know you better, and we can steal some of your super powers to become very good game designers in the future.

So, why don’t you start by introducing yourself to our readers, ignoring the fact that you are well known in our school?

Chris Mitchell: Okay. Alright. I am Chris Mitchell. I am the guy who did quite a lot of design work in the game industry, and then also quite a lot of writing and voice direction as well. I suppose my first big success was Simpsons Hit and Run, where I got to do quite a lot of writing and worked with just tons of really cool people. I worked on things like Crash Bandicoot games after that. I also was lucky to be part of the group who made the DeathSpank franchise — I worked on all three of those games.

There is a quote I really like, which is, “the only thing that doesn’t change, is change itself.” Going from that, I would like to ask you: As the industry evolves, does the background of the Game Design students at VFS change as well? And if so, in what way?

Chris: Oh, that’s an interesting question. One thing I have noticed is that the students are much more technically savvy. I remember when I entered the industry, it was quite unusual to find people who already knew all the skills and tools that were required. Quite a lot of “on the job” learning happened back then. I am sure that’s still true to an extent today, but I keep meeting 18/19 year old students here who already know Maya, who are already programming, and what not. That was essentially unheard of when I first joined the game industry.

What was the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the industry so far, and if you could bring the past back, what would you do differently to deal with it better?

Chris: I suppose the biggest challenge I have had to deal with so far has been dysfunctional teams. I have been on fantastic, fantastic (emphasizing twice) teams, but I have been on dysfunctional teams too. One of the realities of working in the game industry, or in any creative industry, is that it won’t always go well — sometimes you have difficulties that you have to deal with, and some people are very, very good at that. They are catalytic people who can manage to migrate through even the most difficult team situation. But some teams don’t have enough of those people, and it results in difficult workplaces. So, definitely the biggest challenges I faced were those occasions where work really was “work” — right? As compared to the joy that it should be, since it is a really creative thing that we try to do here. I have seen and been on both sides of the fence: I have been on very amazing teams, and not amazing teams —  as I say, teams with lots of arguing, lots of fighting, and what not.

I am sure there are hundreds, but, is there a specific game you played and thought if you were to design it, you would make it differently? If so, why, how?

Chris: Hmm, I think…I have played the Total War game on the iPad recently. I love that studio (The Creative Assembly), I have been buying their games for a long time. I think 1998 was the first time I bought one of their games. When they released the IOS game (Total War Battles: Shogun), I bought it straight away; I was so excited about it. And then I discovered that they essentially made a Tower Defence game, which is quite surprising to me. So, if there is ever one that I would like to get my hands on immediately, just to reengineer it, that would be the one, I think. Because I think there is definitely space on IOS right now for the sort of Total War style strategy games that I really expected them to fill, and the fact that they haven’t filled it means somebody else is going too, unfortunately.

In what ways would you like to see games change in the future?

Chris: Well, one thing I think about is how this industry gets excited by fads from time to time. They get very, very excited about things, whether they are good or bad. They just occupy everyone’s attention for a while — that’s what we are doing. I think the current fad, which is already peeking, is the Free-To-Play stuff. I think that right now, there are so many Free-To-Play products that they don’t really need to be competitive, successful products. I expect the market will eventually tire of them, as I am already. I think because a few products had great, great success, there are so many other look-alikes and follower products trying to copy the same strategy — even when it isn’t necessarily the best thing for them to do. That’s one fad that I am expecting to go away over time, or at least be less prevalent than it is right now.

Do you have any mentors you get inspiration from?

Chris: Oh, tons. Yes, I have loads and loads of mentors. There are many people who helped me over the course of my career. I think the only reason I have had any success at all is because I’ve always had …usually senior people, but sometimes coworkers, working with me, who take time out of their schedule to teach me good design practices, or to teach me good corporate practices, or what not. They are people who haved helped me understand what design really means, and how I can take advantage of it. I don’t know if I want to go dropping names, but everyone who mentored me, I’m still in touch with. I still really, really admire and I still really respect anybody who takes time out of their schedule to just help someone else improve. I know that when I started as a designer, I was terrible — like, I was absolutely terrible as a designer — and the fact that people took time at all to help me, still astounds me. This says something very good about the industry.

It’s a relief to me to know you were terrible at the beginning! (laughter)

Chris: Oh yeah. I was terrible. I was absolutely terrible. I am trying to be very, very honest to the students here about how terrible I was when I started. I eventually found success, but it was a really, really difficult path. I really believe that, early on, it was more effort to train me or guide me, than if I just hadn’t been there at all (laughing). But I guess somebody saw potential, and they helped me through.

I remember you said you went to Japan to learn Japanese. Is there a connection between the game industry, and also your willingness to learn Japanese? 

Chris: Well, I went there because I finished university and I had that classic post university problem of how, if you don’t have experience, you can’t get a job.  But when you know the job is how you get the experience. Japan was a way of short cutting that. I think Japan is where I turned into a serious student. I had been through university, but I really don’t think I was a very serious student. I was just kind of going through the motions. But then I decided to really learn Japanese and become a serious, dedicated student. I think it was a very, very good thing for me. It really taught me how to learn, and by extension, gave me some perspective on how to teach as well. I really had to transfer my approach to learning and studying. I think that’s the part of how I eventually found success in games, because, since I had done it once for learning Japanese, I could then do it again for learning Maya, for learning scripting languages, and things like that.

What is the biggest difference between teaching, and developing games in the industry. Do you still get a chance to improve yourself as you teach?

Chris: Yes, I do, I do. It is a funny thing, being here as a teacher, because once you are in the game industry for a while, it does eventually become a job, and in becoming a job some of the passion runs away. The moment I came here, it just ended. Because all the students here are so passionate and so devoted that I almost immediately remembered that: “Okay games are cool, they are really interesting, and they are fun things to work on.” It reenergizes me. I know that whenever I finally go back to video games — I don’t know when it will be — I will still have to be a teacher. I don’t see how it can end any other way. Because, it is just too addictive, and it is great to get that perspective on games, and to interact with all of those people who still feel genuinely passionate about game design, the way I felt my first day in the game industry. I still remember the very first thing that I had accepted in a design discussion by a group of people in the team I was on — that we were going to do that thing, that idea. Coming here is sort of a way of remembering that passion, and feeling it, perhaps from an arm’s length, but still, remembering what it was really like to be a designer the first day on the job again. I find working here fantastic, something I recommend any game designer do when they need a better perspective on their work.

The final and the biggest question comes: What do you want to do in the future?

Chris: One of the things I wanted to do, which somebody has already done successfully without me, unfortunately, is bring the Ultima games to IOS. Ultima is the franchise that I grew up with. I really loved it, and I thought that style of gameplay really suited the interface of the IOS. So, it was kind of one of my projects, one of the things I always meant to get around to doing.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to doing it, and somebody else did. It nicely shows something I believe — if you have a good idea, somebody else has it too. So, you should try as hard as you can to get it to market first. It is a good reminder for me because it means I’ll act on some of the other ideas I have rolling around in my head for the future. That was the one that for a long time was rolling around in my head. I was really thinking about how everything I liked about that franchise really translated well to IOS, and not many games do. I am always trying to think about products that could translate to IOS nicely. It is still, far and away, the fastest growing platform in the gaming market right now, by a very significant margin. But, I think one of the biggest problems for IOS is that people are trying to make console products and PC products on it, which is really silly. That’s like trying to make console products or PC products for a pinball machine. The interfaces just don’t line up nicely. That’s one of my big challenges right now. One of the things I really think about right now is just what is an appropriate product for IOS, and I know I’m not alone; there are thousands of working game designers in Vancouver right now focusing on that same challenge.