This week, I sat down with level designer Jesse Tucker to find out more about him. We'll get his insights on randomized level design and get his super-secret recipe for The Tucker, his personal drink. —Brian Ward

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So tell me, what do you do at Runic Games?

I do Level Design at Runic Games. I tend to gravitate toward the more technical aspects of the role, such as scripting. I like to make more of the low-level things that can be reused. Some things might take a lot of time to set up at the beginning, but after that's made you can easily place some stuff that would be otherwise very time consuming. Our tools are becoming very good at supporting reusability.

How did you get started in the industry?

I started out with a computer and electrical engineering degree, which has some programming background, but not as much as if you were to do a pure computer science degree. It also had lots of hardware and just crazy math stuff and it was a bit less of a focus on programming. I think I might have gone into programming if I'd had more of a solid foundation through school. And then I ended up getting mono right before graduating college, which delayed lots of projects and I ended up not going into the regular work field for a year after graduating. I ended up doing just odd things here and there and got into modding with Unreal Tournament 2004.

So did that kind of become your gateway to the industry?

Not at first, but it helped eventually. I played around with modding vehicles, and making new weapons, and got into making maps for mostly large multiplayer type things.

And then one of my friends from high school was in QA at Bethesda. I was living in Colorado at the time, shoveling snow because that was the best paying job out there. I ended up getting a temp QA position at Bethesda. After being a QA temp a few times, I eventually stayed on as full-time QA working on a Star Trek project and a Pirates of the Caribbean game for PlayStation 2 that featured the voice of Johnny Depp. They were all externally developed games.

I had been doing pretty well in QA. They initiated a quarterly QA performance award and I was the first person to get that. Around that time, Fallout 3 was starting to ramp up on production and I managed to get moved onto that project. After a few more months of doing QA, I was talking to the Level Design lead and I let him know that I was trying to start working on the actual development team instead of QA. They were looking to ramp up their fairly new Level Design team. I was given an assignment to make an Oblivion mod, and if it went well they would consider hiring me.

I realized that testing games was not what I wanted to do forever, so I ended up putting in a huge effort. I was working nine or ten hour days in QA, and then I'd go home and work on my Oblivion mod for another six hours or so. On weekends, I'd put in about ten hours a day on the mod. After a month and a half, I had something I was proud to submit as a sample piece. It had a few noob mistakes in it because it was the first thing I ever did with Bethesda's mod tools, but all in all they really liked it. I had a couple of unique approaches to design that my lead really liked. I used different tones of lighting to indicate two different paths that go through.

The blue-green lit path catered to stealth play while the orange-red lit path was better for straight ahead combat. They had this glowing fungus that used those two colors, so I marked the stealth routes and the combat routes with them. It was subtle but effective, and they liked that. A lot of the development team also installed Unreal Tournament 2004 on their machines and played a giant onslaught map I had made for that and got good feedback for that as well.

Did you actually get put onto a project at that point?

Yeah, I got put onto Fallout 3 as an associate level designer. The moral of that story is that you have to get really lucky, but you also have to be prepared to seize a lucky moment. It kind of sucks because you can be preparing for something your whole life and never get that lucky moment, but if you're prepared then there's much more of a possibility for you to seize that moment.

I worked on the base game of Fallout 3 and then I worked on almost all the expansions. Point Lookout was probably my favorite expansion although I didn't work on it too much. The things I did do for it I actually was really proud of. I used some kit bashing techniques, which they usually kind of frowned upon, because it just would trash the amount of available memory. If you had two different tilesets loaded at the same time, that would use up a ton of texture memory. It was a small indoor area, though, so it wasn't as big of a deal. I used this architecture that was initially intended for all the marble state buildings in DC and sunk that into some cave pieces. You got this creepy foundation underneath a mansion sort of a vibe. It turned out really well. I also ended up working on the expansion that continued the main plot line, and I did the very last two areas for the main game which was kinda cool. It was really neat to go from making stuff in the base game that wasn't really on the main path to making the finale of the game.

And then Skyrim started up.

I love that game.

It did phenomenally. I think it's really to cool to have worked on Skyrim. With my more technical background, I ended up being the person working with programmers as they were making new systems for designers and then doing all the documentation and finding the initial bugs. I ended up laying a lot more ground work than creating content for the game, although I did script some of the initial traps using the new scripting language.

So after Skyrim, where'd you head to next?

I'd been engaged for a while at that point, and my fiancee had to work in New Mexico for her job. I quit my job at Bethesda and moved out to live with her there. Unfortunately, I had very, very little success finding any sort of employment. It was right after the housing crisis, and I applied to probably hundreds of places. The only engineering jobs—they have a lot of engineering stuff, so I was like maybe I can fallback on that— they had were like, "you must have six years experience in this!"

A lot of it was like, "we're looking for a manager to do this," and I'm no manager!

They had a couple of serious game companies out there, but they were all just scraping by on what little funding they had. They were like, "if we had more money, sure we'd hire you, but sorry!" So after getting married and eight months of me having no employment, we were running out of funds and it became important to look for work outside of New Mexico.

I started looking at Seattle as well as Austin for potential places to move to. I didn't want to move to LA because I had visited LA once. San Francisco at the time had a lot of companies working on social games, and I wasn't interested in those. Austin's companies were typically hiring temporary positions, and that wasn't appealing. I noticed that Runic was hiring, and I remembered the good times I had had playing the original Torchlight.

I really liked Torchlight, particularly how differently the characters played even though I was playing through the same content. The controls were tight, and the art was fun. The randomization was done so well that even as a level designer I didn't really understand how everything was being done. It felt like a more or less handcrafted thing, which now that I understand how it all works, it does make sense. There were enough of the level chunks that every once and a while I'd see something that looked familiar, but it was always in enough variation that it all made me feel like I was playing new content all the time, and that was really nice. I enjoyed that.

Let's talk about level design for Torchlight II. What were your primary responsibilities?

For Torchlight II, I made about a quarter of the levels in the game. There are four of us. We all got to do some boss rooms and some specialty areas. I'm responsible for the controversial Luminous Arena, as well as Tarroch's Tomb.

I think everybody here in level design has some different strengths. It's really neat to work with other people who have other strengths because I can look at the things that they are doing and then steal that.

Here's a question from D2Hans on the forums: When you are designing a level, do you plan it all out beforehand, or do you just take a deep breath and let the level come to you and just chisel away the parts that are not the level?

There are two different main types of levels that we made for Torchlight II. One of them was a level chunk, where it was just a quarter or a fifth of an area—or smaller than that—and that's gonna get glued together with a bunch of other chunks. There are standalone areas like boss rooms, passes, phase beast areas, things like that. The approach for those for me is kind of the same, but when it comes to passes and other standalone things, I can be a lot more creative because I don't have to make sure all the edges match up and I can even know which direction the player is coming from when he enters the area that I'm working on, so I can cater a much more specific experience. I like the ability to do that.

Typically, making chunks is a lot more limiting in terms of design. They have to match up with each other and are relatively small. Sometimes I can fit something cool into them, but the sheer number of chunks that had to be made meant that many of them were more or less geography without a lot of neat stuff tucked away.

My process is that I try and pick something to make each chunk stand out as being interesting and memorable. You wanna try and start with something that's memorable and then fill out and refine and add more detail from there. When it comes to the passes and the things that were not really as randomized, you can get into more of a mindset of what type of gameplay do I want to have? The type of gameplay can inform the shape. You start with a gameplay concept, then move on to the general shape, and add in all the details from there.

I wrote the tutorial on the GUTS wiki for making a level and that has quite a bit of my process.

What's your favorite game, past and present, of all time?

I would say maybe Yoshi's Island for Super Nintendo. There was so much thought that was put into that game. You could interact with the world through just a couple of simple things that you had available to you at pretty much all times and then they just created a world that responded to those simple interactions in so many different ways and just added all sorts of really fun stuff.

It was polished in a way that added so much more to the game. You could tell that they just played it and then they were like, "hey, let's add this cool thing; let's add this mechanic that fits in with everything else." And their boss fights were all really interesting and creative and for its time just blew everything else out of the water.

Super Metroid is a close second for 2D platformers. There are a lot of other games that I've played that are really good. There was a game called Metal Arms: Glitch in the System that never really picked up a lot of publicity, but had a huge amount of depth and amazing level design.

You got a wide array of interesting weapons as you played through the game, and it had really really good AI. You could hide behind stuff and throw a grenade out and a huge hulking robot would run around shouting and trying to find you. That was quite a bit beyond what a lot of AI was doing at the time. They also did a great job of broadcasting to the player what the AI was thinking. The levels were really cool because a lot of them worked as sort of a combat-oriented puzzle. Figuring out which enemies to attack first was a major aspect of the game. One of the mechanics was taking over enemy robots that had certain abilities that could help you clear a level more easily. There was just a lot of depth to the game, but in a way that didn't make it overly complicated. I really appreciate that.

I also really liked Unreal Tournament 2004 because they made a really solid game with a lot of variety—like lots of different play types. You know some people play the game are like, "oh yeah, deathmatch; oh yeah, capture the flag—that was where the game shined" and I don't think I've played a shooter where so many people exclusively play one small subset of the game and feel that was the best part. Like Team Fortress 2, I don't think you have as many people who are just, "oh, Control Points are just the only way to go."

UT2004 was sort of like four or five different full first person shooters in one. The weapons were really enjoyable to use. Each weapon fulfilled a certain purpose and was situationally superior in some circumstance. It wasn't just a bunch of guns that shot bullets in different spreads and different rates of fire.

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Changing gears, do you have any favorite foods?

Recently, my ability to taste spiciness has diminished significantly. I think I just ate moderately spicy food on a semi-regular basis and then one day I bought a bottle of Sriracha sauce and I remember that stuff being really spicy. So I put a little bit on something and I was like, "oh, I have a little bit of sweetness in my food now." I put some more on, and some more on, and I was like, "wow, this is probably bad." My sensibility is telling me that I'm putting way too much on compared to my last experience with Sriracha. I just don't taste spicy food as much anymore.

I like Indian food and Thai food—though I like good pizza every once and a while. I eat way too many burritos.

How about beverages? What is your drink of choice?

Alcoholic drink? I think it really depends on the time of year. When it's colder out, I like whiskey. I like all the various standard drinks that you can make with whiskey, particularly bourbon. I like Old Fashioneds and Manhattans and those types of drinks. I like rum. You can buy pretty good rum for not very much money. You can buy really, really good rum for a lot of money, but you can buy pretty great rum for as much as or less than you would spend on a bottle of Bacardi—when you buy Bacardi you're just paying for the advertising. The rum itself isn't very good. Appleton and Mount Gay are some great, inexpensive rums.

I've created a drink that I think is quite tasty. Here's the recipe:

The Tucker

  • Soak crushed mint in bourbon (I usually do this in a mason jar so I can make a bunch at once).
  • Pour through a strainer into a glass.
  • Mix with ginger ale or ginger beer. (Hansen's is a good but very sweet ginger ale, or use ginger beer for a little more kick).
  • Add a few dashes of bitters
  • Squeeze a lemon wedge in and toss that in the drink as well.

I think a good light summer ale when it's hot outside is refreshing. Gin and tonics are also good when it's warm, and you can't drink them too fast. Living in the Northwest, I'm glad that I like IPAs. Otherwise I would have a huge door of beer drinking closed to me.

If it's non-alcoholic, I like seltzer water with either a slice of lime or a lemon in it. That's really good.

This article is part of a series of Q&A sessions with the Runic dev team. Be sure to check out our previous installment — an interview with Jesse Tucker.