Tech + Lifestyle

games, gear, and googleplexes (joke)

Bethesda Interview: Ashley Cheng

I first mentioned my series of interviews a couple weeks ago, and suffice to say I’ve been a bit busy since then. Scrounging, hunting people down, coming up with hundreds of (hopefully) interesting questions, hitting a lot of dead ends… it takes some time to get a project like this going. Regardless, I’m happy to announce that the first interview has been published, courtesy of VE3D. It’s got a bunch of pretty pictures and cool stuff like that attached, so frankly I would click through to their site to read the piece. If you really want to do it here, though, I’ve got the text-only transcript after the jump.Interview: Ashley Cheng
Production Director at Bethesda Game Studios

Played any games from Bethesda Game Studios recently? If so, you’ve got Ashley Cheng to thank for it. He’s the production director at Bethesda, and played a major role in the creation of games like Fallout 3 and The Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Freelance writer Brian Murff recently got the opportunity to ask him some questions about his work.

General

First of all, can you tell us a little about yourself? What does your job entail?

I was born in Taiwan and came to the US when I was 4 years old. I grew up in the Washington, DC area and have lived here all my life. I attended the University of Maryland and got a degree in English Lit. I’ve always been a big tech geek and gamer.

As the production director at Bethesda Game Studios, I run the day-to-day operations of the development team. Our producers all report to me. I’m also responsible for testing, localization, voice recording, external vendors, relationships with outside parties like Microsoft and Sony for our projects. Since we often have multiple projects going on, I tend to focus my time on the one closest to release.

Which projects have you worked on in the past?

I’ve basically worked on every title released by the internal development team at Bethesda since 2002 with the release of The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. I was promoted to lead producer on our next project, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, and we just finished Fallout 3 last year. I’ve been involved with every SKU in between, including downloadable content, expansion packs, and Game of the Year versions. Basically, I’m the one who gets titles out the door.


What is Bethesda’s design philosophy?

My personal goal is to maintain a very high standard of quality here at the studio. My priority every day is to make sure Bethesda is, and remains, one of the top developers in the industry. Our last two games – Fallout 3 and Oblivion – are among the 10 highest rated on Metacritic and GameRankings, and they’ve both sold millions of copies. I strive to keep us up there with every game we do.

We spend a lot of time in pre-production, iterating on features and working on polish. Our games are big, so maintaining the quality consistently is a challenge. We also stress that the game must be playable at all times. We automate nightly builds so that every day, we can look at the state of the game.  One of our goals is to get from design to playable as quickly as possible.

You’ve worked on some of the most influential games in recent memory, including Fallout 3, and The Elder Scrolls III and IV. What goes into producing such huge titles?

Producers at Bethesda are unlike producers at most other game developers. We are all very hands on from our associate producers straight on up to our executive producer, Todd Howard. It requires high attention to detail, especially when it comes to tracking the sheer amount of art, levels, words, and quests that go into our titles. Additionally, our team is really good at what we do. Since Morrowind, our core team has stayed together and we improve exponentially with each game we finish together.

Were there any defining moments when working on those games – any point when things really came together?

One of the biggest milestones for our titles is the end of pre-production. Pre-production is the period where we research technology, document the world, characters, and quests, and create many concept sketches. Our main goal is to figure out what game we’re making and how we’re going to make it. The culmination of this period of development is a fully realized demo of the game, fully playable with a high level of polish. The demo for Fallout 3 was especially awe inspiring and it was well received by the press. It was also extremely fun to play.

One of the things that Bethesda games are known for are their excellent story lines. How does your studio come up with them?

We look for stories anywhere we can. Our designers are our story tellers. They write out what happens in quests, they write back stories about characters and lore, and they write all the dialogue. But those are just words and a starting point. From there, our level designers and artists create the living breathing world and that’s where we truly excel.

The most important story, for me, is the one the player is telling himself as he plays the game. It’s the story you tell your buddies at work about what happened to you while you were playing Oblivion or Fallout 3. Everyone has a different one to tell.

The Elder Scrolls


I’m going way back to Morrowind, if you don’t mind. The visual style of that game was (and still is) incredibly unique, completely different from other fantasy games of the time. How did you guys come up with that?

I definitely loved Morrowind’s unique visual style. It was always there from the initial concept art. The story had to do with the character being this stranger, so having the world have a strange alien-ness to it worked really well.

What is the process for determining art direction on any of the games you produce?

The art direction comes from our concept artists, our lead artists on the project (Matt Carofano for Elder Scrolls; Istvan Pely for Fallout 3), and our game director/exec producer, Todd Howard. We go through months and months of concepts, looking for the right tone and look. We tend to create concepts of overall scenes to help dictate the direction before getting into lots of detail.

Did all the lore that’s built up around The Elder Scrolls help when developing Morrowind and Oblivion, or make it more difficult?

It’s nice having a large bible of lore to pillage when working on a game. Plus The Elder Scrolls is the kitchen sink of lore – you got vampires, werewolves, three kinds of elves, orcs, mysterious lost races like the dwarves, interesting demigod figures in the Daedra, etc… we can tell all kinds of great stories and lore in The Elder Scrolls.

What was it like going from The Elder Scrolls, which is Bethesda’s property, to Fallout, which is a series created by someone else? How do you go about working within the constraints of someone else’s design?

For us, it was easy because we’re big fans of the first two Fallout games. We treated Fallout 3 as the sequel to Fallout 2, and just took it from there. Much like Bryan Singer has been quoted saying he treated Superman Returns as a sequel to Superman 2.

Plus one of the great things about the Fallout world is the lore itself. The lore is American history: a wonderfully interesting alternate universe of American history. Being able to explore themes of slavery and patriotism, government, Abraham Lincoln and important historical documents, plus re-creating monuments like the Capitol or the Washington Monument – it was a tremendously fun project to work on. American history is a fantastic lore playground to work on.

Was the shift from fantasy to post-apocalyptic a difficult one? Do you have a preference between working with The Elder Scrolls and working with Fallout?

The shift wasn’t too difficult, at least, not for me. Fallout 3 is as much a follow up to Oblivion as it is to Fallout 1 and 2. Both games are fundamentally about exploration, living a different life and building your character the way you want.

Both Oblivion and Fallout 3 are very open-ended games. Are there situations in which a linear approach is better? What are the benefits of each approach?

Well, linear is a bit easier on the workflow, but I find them to be not as fun to play as open ended worlds. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy linear games – I ‘m a big fan of first person shooters like Call of Duty, too.

Fallout

Recently, DLC content The Pitt was released for Fallout 3. What can you tell us about it? What changes and additions have been made?

The Pitt is what I like to call the slave/slaver DLC. You get to visit Pittsburgh, or what is left of it. Our designers came up with a great story of conflict between slavers and slaves. Our DLC’s are primarily concerned with adding more story and content and The Pitt is a lot of fun.

Were player reactions from Operation Anchorage taken into account when making The Pitt?

A little bit. Keep in mind, by the time Operation Anchorage came out, The Pitt was already designed and playable. Our DLCs are in the can for weeks before the public plays them. That’s just the nature of finalizing, localizing, and preparing DLC for release.

When it was first released on Xbox Live, The Pitt had a lot of bugs. Fortunately, Bethesda did a great fixing the problem. What happened?

This comes down to two issues. The first issue was that the English language version of the Pitt DLC propped on Xbox Live became corrupted. Since this occurred, we worked with Microsoft to put processes in place so that this can never happen again. So that’s not really bugs, but rather that nobody had a complete version of the English file to play with in the first place. It wasn’t an issue for the foreign language version.

The second issue was much more isolated. It required you to have done certain things in your save prior to playing with The Pitt, so not many folks saw the bug. However, it was a serious bug, so we worked through the weekend to get a fix in both the PDLC itself and also rolled it into a future patch with a more comprehensive fix.

While there is no excuse for letting a bug like this through, this is a prime example of the challenge we face with DLC. Due to the size of Fallout 3, it is a huge challenge to test DLC against existing characters and saves and everything you can possibly do in the game. However, our terrific fans generously send us saves to roll into our testing cycles and we should do better with this on future DLC.

That wasn’t the first time you’ve had difficulties with bugs. When Fallout 3 was first released, it had problems as well. In fact, there was one point where my PC copy was virtually unplayable, crashing every five minutes or so. Why are some games released in that state?

I think game developers and publishers can certainly do better with supporting PC SKUs. The challenge lies in testing and resolving conflicts with the huge variety of hardware configurations and drivers that are out there on PCs. Compatibility is exponentially harder to support on PC than on consoles, where everyone has the same specs. The problem is that the end user, like you, can have a problem that we can’t fix because something else is causing it to crash. Our tech support folks spend a lot of time related to software running in the background, out-of-date drivers, and other issues that affect our game, but are outside of our control.


Is there a chance that releasing games with bugs ends up hurting sales? Some gamers won’t play anything from a certain studio if they’ve had a bad experience with a buggy product.

I agree. I think it is important to support your product and create as polished an experience as possible for consumers. It is certainly one of our top priorities here at the studio.


Future Releases

What other games in development right now? There has been talk of The Elder Scrolls 5, but not many details.

We aren’t talking about any of our future projects at this time.

Will there be a Fallout MMO?

I have no idea if there ever will be one but I’ll be first in line to play it! We don’t make MMOs. We have a sister company, ZeniMax Online Studios, that focuses on those. We’ll have to wait to see what they’re up to.

What are your thoughts on user-generated content? Are ideas from mods ever incorporated into later games?

Our modding community is great. Since the days of Morrowind, we’ve had a strong modding community who’ve done some pretty amazing things with our tools. We don’t specifically take ideas from mods for future titles, but we do read everything on the forums and we take all that feedback into account for future projects.

Conclusion

Every time I try to write ‘Bethesda,’ I end up typing ‘Bethesday’ instead. Would you consider changing the name of your studio?

I’ve always wondered what a Softworks was. We’ve separated our internal development and have a less wacky name now with Bethesda Game Studios.

Thanks for your time.

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April 15, 2009 - Posted by | Gaming, Interview | , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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