Podzilla 1985

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fifteen on Friday

J.P. Harrod, or "GrimmOmen" as he's known around the interwebs, is an interesting fellow. He's an artist at heart, which is something I can relate to. The only real difference between us is he was successful at it, while I toil away on DeviantArt hoping someone likes the picture I drew of Kirby after he sucked in Richter Belmont.

But J.P. found his success in the business, from his early days working with the 3DO company to his years as CG supervisor and art director at Electronic Arts. For a time he was involved with one of the most influential MMO's of all time. If you remember the old days of persistent online gaming, back when your choices were almost as limited as the American political party system, you have heard of Ultima Online. It was one of the first graphical online persistent worlds, and what it lacked in cutting edge graphics and polish it made up for in pure imagination and creativity. It was also a continuation of the groundbreaking RPG series Ultima, which has continued to influence Western RPG's to this day.

A lot of the great art found within the game can be attributed to J.P., who remains refreshingly humble about his time in the industry. I'm happy to share my time with J.P. with the sexified readers of BZ85, so let's get down to business.

It's  Fifteen on Friday - fifteen questions, one interesting person. 

  First one is a freebie - Tell us about yourself and your work.
I grew up in a small (very small) town in Arkansas called Royal, so I'm what you would call an "authentic" hillbilly, lol! I've been married for about 18 years, and have been in the game industry for about 15 years. I've worked at The 3DO Company, There, Inc, and Electronic Arts / Mythic / Bioware, and have done contract work for NVIDIA as well as doing some story boards for an independent film maker.

I've been teaching part time at Mount Hood Community College in their rapidly growing game development program. I've taught classes there such as Rigging and Animation, Intro to 3D Animation, and I regularly teach the Game Theory class.

I'm still looking for full time work, but who knows what's coming!

Outside of professional stuff, I love gardening, hiking and fishing. And I play the bagpipes and compete nearly year round.

 What made you want to get into the industry?
I actually was aiming for the visual effects industry when I was living in San Francisco, but I got a call from a friend who said he had a friend who was looking for a 3D artist for a game company called 3DO. I went in for an interview, and that was that.

I can t say that I "wanted" to get into the industry, but it offered a much richer experience straight away than what I was prepared for in the VFX industry. The collaboration, and being able to do so many things was an elixir that I was never able to quit! The fact that I was constantly switching from environments, to characters, to technical art work kept me constantly challenged and was great!

What games influenced you growing up?
Well, my first console was the pong console. Yea, it played one game - Pong. I played it. On a black and white TV. I had a friend who had an Atari 2600 and I loved a lot of the games he had, not many I remember the name of. There was one, I think it's name was Mountain King, or something like that, then there was the Jungle game where you had to jump on the backs of crocs, and swing on vines. That was fun and I spent hours upon hours playing that game.

But I think the first video game that actually had an impact on me was Dragons Lair. I mean, I loved Tron, Galaxia, Donkey Kong, and of course, Pac-Man, but Dragons Lair was the first game that awed me. It showed me that games can be real forms of art. I will be ever thankful to Don Bluth for that.

 Ultima Online is a classic. What was it like working on such a historic game?
Wow, that's kind of hard to put into words. My wife actually introduced me to Ultima, and for her, IS the game that all others are measured by. So she and I had held the Ultima franchise in really high esteem long before I got the call to come work on it.
The faces behind the legend

But it was pretty amazing to come home and tell my wife that I was actually working on Ultima Online! Lol! I'm a huge fan of the Guild, and I have seen a LOT of parallels between my experiences and what goes on in that series. Especially in the 5th season when the characters go to the game con and everything that happens there with the devs. But the look on Felicia Days character when you know what happens to her at the end of season 5, it's exactly what I felt like.

I was really excited and nervous about working on it though if for no other reason than it had this immense and rich history. You definitely feel like you're being entrusted with something precious.

 Which UO do you prefer, pre-Trammel or post, and why do you feel that way?
Interesting question, I'm going to ride the fence a bit and possibly tick both sides off at me! I think I'm I favor of the concept behind Trammel, but not a fan of how it got implemented.

What I mean by this is that you have to have some means of protecting your lower skilled players from the more advanced hunter/killers, but I think splitting the population up is never the way to go. I think that you should always give players the ability to opt out of PvP altogether, and for those who want in, provide them the ability to PvP on a ranked system so that they don't have to worry about getting rolled by another player that has considerably higher skills and ranked armor, or they can opt to cowboy it and learn the hard way. I think the biggest mistakes that games make is trying to come up with a one size fits all approach when you have players with so many different play styles.

Given the way UO is set up, there are so many shards, and by introducing Trammel, they further split the player base up. It's a perspective that is convenient in hind sight, but I think that any solution to design or game play issues whose results are ultimately to segregate the community should be seriously evaluated.

 Are you an MMO fan yourself, and what MMO's do you play, assuming you even have the time to?
I've played UO, Warhammer, Guild Wars, WoW, Eve, CoH, and SWTOR. UO is still my favorite, but I don't usually stick with an MMO longer than the trial period. Not because I think they are all the same or anything like that, but for one, when you work on an MMO for 8 - 10 hours a day, you just don't want to spend MORE time in front of a bloody PC. Especially when you have family that you want to spend time with as well. Also, I think there's a time investment there that I'm not willing to put in right now. I like my FPS games like Battlefield 3, and I've been playing the Alpha of Hawken, and that's a load of fun as well. These games I can pick up, put down, and pick up again as time permits, and I don't have to worry about bailing on a group where they are relying on me as the healer or tank in a dungeon crawl.

 UO was revolutionary, but World of Warcraft definitely pushed the genre forward, while some say it continues to hold it back to this day. How do you feel about WoW's contributions to the industry?
Another great question. WoWs success has made a huge impact on the industry- in ways I think we are still just coming around to understanding.

This box art still sends chills down my spine
In game development, there are two sides - the creative side and the business side. I think that WoWs financial success sent the business side of the industry into overdrive - kind of like the Hulk taking over Bruce Banner. So many companies immediately wanted that level of success and thus completely drove the creative processes as well - which is totally the wrong lesson to learn from the WoW phenomenon. It's like thinking that if you sing all the same songs as Elvis, you become Elvis. WoW happened because WoW was what it was, just like UO.

The thing is, Blizzard put time, money, and talent behind making WoW, and it paid off. At the time, I can't tell you how many times I heard "we want to do another WoW." Which is just as likely as being another Elvis. Interestingly, SWOTR did the exact same thing (investing money, time, and talent), and with the Star Wars franchise behind it, and still didn't manage another WoW. I think they got a good game, but nothing on the success level of WoW.

I think it's erroneous to think that WoW is in any way holding the industry back, the reality is that its the industry that's holding itself back. As long a game companies look to recreate WoW rather than to just make good games, that's not going to change.

Are MMO fans impossible to please?
Are MMO players impossible to please... Lol. Okay, let's try this!

I think the old saying about pleasing everyone all the time is a perfect response to this. I think given that people have such varied opinions on what would make any game better,that its hard to implement changes that please everyone. Invariably you are going to please the people who have always wanted those changes, anger the people who thought the system was perfect, and make irate the people who think you've been wasting your time and their money by ignoring the things that matter most in the game (to them).

Communication is the key though. Players don't have to agree with you, but if they understand why things are changing, the odds are good they'll cut you some slack. This is one of the reasons I had started my "To-do" list on Stratics. Given how incredibly small the art team was, there was no way for me to address the players concerns and keep up with the demands of production. That list served to show that I was listening to what players were saying, that although I might not be able to get to it right away, it was on a list that everyone could see. Not communicating with the players just opens the door to the feeling that devs aren't listening to players, that devs don't care, that there's no "vision" for the game.

The catch to communication though is that you're laying all your cards on the table, so you better have a plan for the game, otherwise everyone will see that you don't!

 Are sandbox MMO's dead?
No, I don't think sandbox MMOs are dead, there's still quite a few out there, although none with the history or longevity of UO. I think sandbox MMOs are just seeing a bit of a lull in popularity at the moment as compared with the other MMO games. This might be a result of the WoW effect as I mentioned in an earlier answer, or possibly an indication that younger players require structured and directed game play more than the older players out there, I don't know.

 Western RPG's or Eastern RPG's?
I don't know if I can talk to that point or not. I think that if a game developer makes a good game, then whatever cultural things that usually rub you the wrong way won't bother you as much. Aside from that, I don't really come down on one side of the fence or the other on that one.

 What kind of interests do you have outside of video games?
As I mentioned earlier, my biggest thing right now is bagpipes. I've been playing for about 3 years now and I'm competing during the summer at the local Highland games here in Oregon and up in Washington. During the winter months I compete at the monthly Oregon Pipers Society meet ups here in Portland. It's a lot of fun and a challenging instrument to play. In addition to that, I love to fish - both warm and cold water. Love bass, trout, and salmon fishing, although my luck in salmon fishing has been less than stellar. Lol. I also am an armchair carpenter and gardener. I'm picking up sculpting and learning 2D animation which has been a lot of fun.

 What's your favorite piece of work that you've done so far?
A little custom art Derek and I did for our characters
Well, for UO, since I was filling the in the role of Art Director, Technical Artist, Character and Environment Art Leads as well as a stand in rigger and animator - I didn't have the time to actually *make* the 3D assets that went into the game. I designed them, which included drawing concept artwork as well as directing the creation of the assets. So I'm going to answer this in terms of creature/character design work.

I have so many creatures that I really love how they turned out. The rot worms, the crimson dragon, the ancient hell hounds, and the Boura - especially the armored Boura! I also really liked directing the look of King Blackthorn as well. But I think my best design work was Exodus. Visually impressive, he really embodied evil in every way. I just wish he had played a more recurring role so that players could encounter him more often.

Random semi-topical question for you - Should Disney stick to it's hand drawn roots or should they keep pushing the 3D animation?
As some may know, in 2004, Disney had shut down it's 2D studios entirely. Thanks to John Lasseter, the studio reopened it's 2D production Facilities in 2009.

Until I had seen the movie Tangled, I had thought that Disney had, for the most part, lost its magic. But Tangled really put Disney back at the top of the animation latter. It was the first really sophisticated 3-D animation that I had seen Disney do that felt like Disney but was really top notch animation. So I think Disney should definitely keep its 2-D roots, and push that technology forward. But I also think they have made such strides in 3-D animation that it would be heartbreaking to see Disney not push that front forward as well. It's very similar to what Ardman as well as Laika studios has done with stop motion animation. Stop motion is one of the oldest forms of animation. But they take this technology and keep pushing it forward developing new And more efficient ways of performing the art. And I think that's really the key and preserving traditional means of animation. These older methods of animation are typically more expensive due to the extensive amount of time it takes to create these things. As tools improve and technologies advance, this cost is mitigated and brings the art form back to financial feasibility and therefore back into public eye.

 Any projects you're working on currently?
Now, I do not currently have any projects that I'm working on. Aside from helping Mount Hood Community College develop its curriculum for its game development program, I've pretty much moved outside the game development industry.

Not an actual face....we hope. Yet, we secretly wish it to be...

J.P. is a friendly guy and a great talent. If you'd like to follow his work, and Godzilla recommends that you do, you can catch him on Twitter right here. If you're here looking to hire an uber talented individual, and you're on a page full of them by the way, you may want to check out his LinkedIn page here.

And make sure you check out MMOSite, where all of my MMORPG related material will be published first for your viewing pleasure.
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