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  • 09/29/10 04:33 PM
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    Interview with Chris Rausch

    Business and Law

    Myopic Rhino
    Chris Rausch is a video game industry veteran who started out in the industry in 1993. He is the Chief Creative Officer (fancy title for game designer with the biggest head) and co-owner/co-founder of SuperVillain Studios. Chris was also a founding member of the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater franchise at Neversoft Entertainment. Some of Chris' work as a designer includes the first 6 Tony Hawk games, Order UP!, Grand Slam Baseball, X-Men: Legends II: Rise of Apocalypse, and Fat Princess: Fistful of Cake, to name just a few.
    It's an obvious question but we reeeeaaaally need to know; how did you get in to game design?

    It was pretty out of the blue actually. I've been a complete videogame base-head my whole life. In early '93 I was at a junior college in Huntington Beach working toward a transfer to a 4-year school, hoping to major in graphic design. Truth be told though; I ended up surfing WAY more than I made it to class. I was also working as the "video game guy" at a local toy store at the time.

    A friend of mine came home one day and was totally excited about landing a customer service job at Virgin Interactive in Irvine. She talked about how it was the complete opposite of a suit and tie atmosphere; full of creative people working on stuff with companies like Disney, various movie studios, and other big names. I was completely intrigued, so I called them up and asked if they had any more customer service jobs. The HR rep immediately asked how old I was, and when she found out I was 18, she told me that I didn't want customer service...I wanted QA (Quality Assurance), where my job would be to test/play the upcoming games and write error reports. You're going to pay me for that? SIGN ME UP!

    Within a year I had a few offers to get into Production, but wanted to get into the creative side instead. I did some storyboards and other odd jobs for some projects that needed creative gopher work and eventually got picked up as a Junior Designer by an internal studio team that was making a baseball game. I ended up taking over the Lead Design spot on that project a few months later and went on from there.

    What is your process when first designing a concept for a video game? Please include any weird rituals, dances and/or songs.

    Well first I get a sheep and a tub of butter...oh wait...wrong ritual. Sorry. I have no particular ritual really. Random ideas or concepts will hit me here and there and I note them for consideration later, but typically I just look at the task at hand and try to figure out how it could work and be fun. After I hate everything that I've come up with for several days and I'm tired, frustrated, more bald than before, and ready to quit and get a regular 9 to 5 job, something decent usually hits me. Then I run through it with the rest of the team and we turn it into a direction that we all want to move in. That collaborative effort is what brings out the best stuff in a small team environment like ours. Of course, then we usually have the time and budget to accomplish about 30% of it. Sweet!

    How do you organize and structure your work?

    My work is all over the place these days. I still like to be hands-on with our projects, even though I typically am tasked with Directing them all. So I'll go from design and art reviews, to business meetings, to writing creative documents, to managing our company's employee benefits, to blocking out a 3D model for R&D or testing, to who knows what. It's pretty impossible to rigidly organize my days, beyond knowing that I need to have x, y, and z done by a certain date...or else. I've always worked that way in some fashion. Maybe there's some mild ADD in there somewhere.

    What tools do you most commonly work with?

    Wow, you name it I guess. For the boring stuff, I work with most aspects of Microsoft Office (Excel, Word, Visio, Power Point, blah, blah, blah) for various creative documents, charts, and so on. For hands-on stuff, I work with Photoshop, 3D Studio Max, Audition, Premiere, After Effects, and anything else that does something that I need at the time, in order to convey some idea or put together a working test or R&D project.

    Do you think being a reader is pertinent to game design and if so what kinds of material do you think most helpful?

    It's funny you should ask. I RARELY read books. You can start booing me now, I know. Jurassic Park and The Lost World were the last books that I read cover-to-cover. I've always been drawn much more to visuals and sound than I have to text. Film, Music, Illustration, Animation; those are way more my speed. Somewhere along the line though, I managed to become a fairly decent writer and communicator, so I must have been paying attention. Stay in school, kids!

    As it pertains to game design, I always try to keep it simple because no one wants to read a lengthy document these days. I try to avoid epic undertakings on paper. If you have 30 minutes to convince a room full of business people (or anyone for that matter) that your team deserves a few million of their dollars, you had better not be thumbing through a 200-page document. You typically have to use more tightly focused creative writing as a portion of a larger overall presentation.

    Could you share one or two tips for aspiring game designers?

    It's a brave new world right now. The indie scene, freeware tools, and overall accessibility are exploding! It's a great time to explore so many different approaches to creating small or personal projects. I'd start there. Identify what it is that motivates you to make games. Is it because you like to play them? Is it because you have an idea that you think is unique? Is it because you love art, or sound, or problem solving? What do you like to play? Try to make a sample of that with available editors or engines. I wish I had all of this at my fingertips when I was younger and needed less sleep!

    I got into making maps for Quake 2 with an editor called Quest. That really turned me on to wrapping my brain around more proper 3D modeling, and I dove into 3D Studio from there. It's really important to find something that you have fun doing, or get some great satisfaction from. The risk for burnout can be pretty high, since making a game is a lot less glamorous than one might think, especially if you're aiming for a more ambitious project.

    Given the speed of advancements in technology and capability, what do you imagine video game design of the future will be like?

    My guess is that all of the upcoming 3D tech will play a bigger role in games than it will in television or at-home movies. I don't really think that the 3D TV broadcasts will hit quite as hard as the providers and manufacturers would hope, so I think games could really end up driving the experience. TV is too casual to commit a bunch of extra money to for gear or glasses, just to watch the news or a sitcom. But, by its very nature, a game is more of a conscious investment than a TV show, so I have a feeling that people will be more willing to gear up to play or show off a cool 3D game. Games like Modern Warfare, or Boom Blox, or Patapon could also use the tech in really cool and different ways. Can you imagine Patapon utilizing paralaxing 2D layers that pop in 3D? Or Alien Homonid? I would buy that game for the 3rd or 4th time to see and play it like that, even though it's hard as Hell!

    What is your favourite joke?

    Two guys walk into a bar. One looks at the other and says "Shit, man. I didn't see it either!"

    Am I allowed to curse? Too late. :-)

    A lot of your work has been tied to the Tony Hawk franchise. Do you see yourself going back to Tony Hawk or anything like it in the future?

    I would, but it would depend on the circumstances. Pro Skater was a dream project. I had been pitching a skateboarding game for almost two years at my former company before I hooked up with Neversoft, who were thinking about the same thing. I'm really fortunate and thankful that I had the opportunity to be a part of it from the start, and to then watch it grow into something that so many people loved, and something that defined a fairly new genre. Wow, that was 10 years ago! Time flies!

    I'm actually a big fan of the EA Skate series these days. I know...I'm a traitor. Those guys really upped the bar though, and breathed life back into that genre as it was starting to tread water. I was totally blown away by the first Skate game. They brought the focus back to the skating itself and used newer tech and some cool, risky camerawork to take the visuals to the next level.

    I love skateboarding though, and would absolutely do it again if it were for a project that presented something different. Not hyper-real and not the same ol' same ol', ya know? What that is...I have no idea.

    What were the major reasons for starting your own company?

    I've always preferred a smaller, more tightly-knit team environment, whether I was on a small team within a large company, or at a small studio (e.g. THPS-era Neversoft). When Tony Hawk exploded, the company grew rapidly from one game to the next. I think there were 11 or 12 of us on the original Pro Skater team, and maybe 14 or so on Hawk 2. But, by the time I left during Underground 2 (THUG 2), there were 60 or so people on the team, and the company was approaching 100 as they expanded to ramp up production on GUN. My partner, Steve Ganem, and I saw an opportunity to get back to basics, and to kill off our horrible commutes (both of us had 1.5 - 2.5 hour drives up to the San Fernando Valley). So we pulled together some of our favorite former teammates from various companies and went for it, forming SuperVillain Studios with 6 people at the beginning of 2004.

    How would you describe the experience of branching off? Particularly to people in a similar position.

    For us it was certainly reinvigorating, especially early on. But as the company grows, so does the stress and reality of running a business and trying to keep people happy and motivated. It's not something to take lightly, so just make sure that you know what it is you're after, and be flexible and creative with ways that you might get it. You may or may not land your dream project right away, or ever, really. You may have to pay the bills for a while in order to get there, dependant upon what "there" is for you or your team. Maybe you are branching out on your own, or with a really small group that intends to stay that way. In a lot of ways, it much easier to do the really creative stuff that way. Working remotely on borrowed time and with smaller groups of people is happening more and more. There's a lot of opportunity for that right now. I'd love to try my hand at smaller projects if I could find the time. We're trying to foster more of that here at SuperVillain right now as well, and it's awesome to see people get really excited about it because it's so different from our typical structure and publisher-to-developer project approach. We encourage all of our team members to explore whatever they can to open us up to new ideas.

    The name and concept of Supervillain Studios is so cool, who came up with the ideas? Any influences?

    It was on a list of names that my other partner, Tim Campbell, put together before we officially started the company. The three of us (Steve, Tim, and I) looked at the list and that one stuck out like it was written in neon lights. Remember the scene in the movie Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler figures out his name? It was just like that, only there was no hot tub. There might as well have been only one name on that list, even though there were probably thirty or so.

    As for the monkeys and robots, we were thinking about various comic directions for a while and our Art Director, Chris Glenn, put together a World War 2 propaganda poster using an older robot design that we had come up with for a book project of mine. That established the illustrated world domination and robots vibe. Then one night during a crunch, at about 3am, he drew the first version of the monkey bomb logo, almost as a joke. We laughed for an hour and couldn't get over how cool it was. We took that in an illustrated direction and ran with it as a theme.

    Do you all wear latex Supervillain suits underneath your regular work clothes? If so, doesn't that chafe a little bit?

    Underneath? No way! How would anyone see them? They're on the outside! Only on the weekends though. And the important bits are cut out of the suit to avoid chafing and allow everything to breathe. We're really progressive that way. We're a big hit at raves and Burning Man. ?

    Actually, we do have pretty awesome T-Shirts that at least half the team is wearing on any given day. And someday I'll get around to doing my job and getting our online store launched so that everyone else can wear them too!

    What do you look for in potential Supervillain Masterminds who might be interested in joining your team?

    Whether they're tech, or art and design, we try to look for creative and talented people. We're slow to hire and very particular. Most of the folks here are big fans of games, film and music. We're small, so we look for versatility. For example, we don't really have the luxury of hiring an artist who just specializes in making trees, ya know? That seems a bit silly. They need to be able to make trees, cars, buildings, you name it. And they need to handle every aspect of making it, from modeling, to texture, to lighting, and so on. And to top it all off, they need to be able to make it all in a photo-real style on one project, and an animated style on the next.

    SuperVillain always has something really cool up its sleeve. What shall we expect from SuperVillain next?

    Disney just announced our Tron: Evolution PSP project during E3. It's an original game, created entirely by us. No ports. Woo hoo! In fact, each platform for the new Tron release this year is a unique game, with only the 360 and PS3 being the same experience. The project has been a blast to work on, and there are bunch of us on the team that are HUGE Tron nerds. I got to work with Bruce Boxleitner (Tron!) for our VO stuff, and it was hard not to devolve into a complete fan-boy. When I was a kid, I was screaming my ripcord Light Cycles up and down the sidewalk with my Tron and Sark action figures inside, and now we're creating our own unique Light Cycles for the game, and directing Tron himself as he reads our script. Pretty surreal. And the game is gorgeous, by the way. It certainly pays homage to the old arcade games and classic film in a number of ways, so hopefully people will have lot of fun discovering that stuff and tying it to the new material.

    We're always trying to cook up new original concepts as well. And hey, if you know of any publishers that were fans of Order Up! on the Wii...we're certainly looking to continue developing that franchise! We have an early version of the sequel running on both the Wii and the PS3 Move, but admittedly it's on hold right now until we finish up Tron and find a publishing partner. There is a ton of really fun stuff laid out for it, including multi-player, a food editor, crazy custom restaurant stuff, and more of everything that made the first game a lot of fun. I think the first one is still the highest rated cooking game on all or most the platforms...if you're driven by ratings (Hey, publishers! Read that last line again!).

    What does the more long term future hold for you and for SuperVillain Studios?

    I really feel like we've got the team, the flexibility, and the direction to deliver something pretty awesome time and time again, given the freedom to do so. Big, small, you name it. You'll definitely be hearing more about SuperVillain Studios and our projects in the future. We have a staggering 300 or so Facebook fans right now, and that's the new measure of success right? What's that? Other pages have millions of fans? Well that's their problem! Their pages are stupid! That wasn't very professional. I apologize. They're still stupid though! Mwaaa Haaa Haaa!

    Is that it? Are we done? Hey, where ya goin'?

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