This past week I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Kazan who is an artist at Ubisoft Toronto as well as the creative director for the game No More Room In Hell, a free to play zombie shooter available on Steam. Matt shares some insight on what it takes to work in the gaming industry as a small time indie developer all the way to being employed at a AAA studio.
DH: Please if you would, introduce yourself to the good readers of the Black Shell Media blog!
MK: My name is Matt Kazan, aka Maxx, and I’m the creative director for No More Room in Hell 1 and 2. I am also a level artist at Ubisoft Toronto with 10 years industry experience.
DH: How long have you been developing games and where did it start?
MK: I got in to game development by accident back in 1997. I was obsessed with playing Duke Nukem 3D, and my older brother told me I could make my own maps for it. He and I played with that together, and I made my first level (a corridor made of lava!) at the age of 10. I was super proud, but didn’t really understand the technical or design aspect of what I was doing.
When Half-Life came out in 1998 I immediately started using Worldcraft, and without a doubt I spent exponentially more time making maps for various mods and projects than I ever did actually playing any game. By 2002, I was 15, I knew I wanted to focus specifically on game development as a career.
DH: What were your inspirations for No More Room In Hell?
MK: Our major inspirations for NMRIH are actually mostly things that are not games. We draw a lot of inspiration from the original George Romero trilogy, the Zack Snyder remake of Dawn of the Dead, both of Max Brooks’ novels Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z as well as the film World War Z. We also look at films like 28 Days Later and Contagion as examples of how the world handles a major biological catastrophe, We also considered films like Cloverfield or Godzilla 2014 for clever ways to tell a story with lighting and tone and mood, as well as defining ambience in particular audio ambience.
DH: Why did you decide to take on a project of this scale?
MK: NMRIH went through a few weird phases. By the end of 2008 when I was working full time at Rockstar Games, the original founder of NMRIH was ready to give up on the project because he didn’t really know how to manage the project. He asked me to take over since I had professional experience and I agreed. We restarted the project in 2009, because where it left off in 2008 was this huge, over scoped, out of control and unfocused design of what can barely be described as a game. We decided to scale the project down to a very simple premise and set of basic features in order to make it more manageable. As we started to achieve each goal, we’d slowly add more and more.
The idea was, start small and focused, lay a good foundation, and we can slowly add more and more to eventually bring it back to where the original design wanted to go. The goal, ultimately, was to create a tough and tense but easy to pick up zombie game focused on action and intense situations, the goal being to recreate the fear and excitement of all the best zombie films. It took a few years, and it still isn’t all the way there, but I think we were successful! But this is why we are working on NMRIH2, to pick up where we left off with new tech to prop us up and allow us to achieve the last few remaining mechanics we always wanted.
DH: How would you describe NMRIH?
MK: Our semi-official tagline is “the first Half-life 2 zombification” back when we were a mod, NMRIH was originally the first zombie mod announced for the Source Engine. Though today, I’d describe it as “a free, intense and unsettling zombie apocalypse co-op experience.”
DH: What engine was your game built in and would you use it again or go with another?
MK: We started with the Source Engine, which we upgraded to Source 2007 when I took over in early 2009, and then to Source 2013 when we launched on Steam. Going forward, we are using Unreal Engine 4 for NMRIH2.
DH: What were some challenges you had to overcome in the development process?
MK: The biggest is that our whole team exists online, across many many timezones. At its peak the NMRIH team was nearly 30 people not including testers. This made it really hard to get everyone together for meetings, to keep in communication with everyone, and to keep tabs on their progress and what they are working on next. Project management software, task tracking services, and subversion control are all absolute musts!
DH: What’s your favorite part of your job?
MK: Three main things: on a personal level I love seeing people enjoy the final product and hearing their stories about their experiences and fun times. On a management level I love seeing everything come together internally, in particular whenever a programmer makes a submission of a whole new mechanic or feature you get to play with for the first time. As an artist, my favorite job is to do set dressing of environments, decorating them up and making them feel lived-in and real.
DH: How many people are involved in the development of NMRIH?
MK: At our peak we were nearly 30 people with almost 20 testers on hand. Nowadays we have a team of about 10 dedicated people on NMRIH1, and NMRIH2 I can’t really talk about for contractual reasons but our team is much more focused and consolidated.
DH: What are your thoughts on the current state of indie gaming?
MK: A problem with indie game development I’ve always had is how “serious” and elitist a lot of people in the indie scene can be. Having worked in the AAA industry for a decade, I see a huge difference in the personalities of people who work for big studios on massive cutting-edge games vs. people who work on smaller indie projects, in particular at events such as GDC or Dev Days.
I am not involved in indie communities, Art Station, Polycount, or any similar communities because of the unintended competition that can result between people when we’re all just trying to make fun games.
DH: What’s one piece of advice that you’d give to other game developers?
MK: Practice and learn on your own! Teach yourself! Play other games, take notes on what they did that works and what doesn’t. Don’t go to school for focused career positions such as “game designer”, if you really have to go to school go for a more general field of study such as Animation, or Computer Science, that are not focused on games.
When you’re ready for some game experience start with working on mods and giving some purpose to your experimentation, learning, and portfolio pieces. This helps you contextualize all the things you’re doing with an ultimate end-goal of something usable or playable. When hiring people, studios prioritize practical experience and personality over formal education.
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