TA Community Interview - Vermin360

By DavieMarshall, 7 years ago
It's been a fantastic week for games news. L.A. Noire (Xbox 360) is now on shelves, a firmware update for the 360 has been pushed out and the ever controversial Modern Warfare series sees the third title in the series get a solid release date.

But, for now, let's turn once again to our TA community and see what goodies we can unearth this week as I talk to Vermin360 ...

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DavieMarshall: Vermin360, welcome! Thanks for getting involved with the Community Interviews!

Vermin360: Any time, Davie. I probably visit this site more than any other during my day-to-day.

D: Starting out with some easy questions, where do you live?

V: I'm in Georgetown, a small suburb of Toronto. It's got a lot of farmland, but is only about 10 minutes away from anything I need.

D: And if you had to sum yourself up in four words, what would they be?

V: I'd probably say "Loyal, Passionate, Mildly Obsessed" but I think my wife would say "Plays Too Much Xbox"

D: If you had to liken yourself to a game character, who comes closest?

V: Wow, that's a good one. I think I'll go with Pitfall Harry. I've been around gaming for a long time, keep pretty quiet, and every day is an adventure. You know, that sounded really lame after I wrote it down. Let's go with Guybrush Threepwood instead. A little quiet and unassuming, but can rise to heroic deeds when called upon.

D: What do you do for a living?

V: I've been a videogame designer for about 13 years now, and served as the Design Lead on six titles, three of which have been released so far.

D: An interview with a Lead Game Designer? Fantastic! I’ve a couple of questions I’d like to ask you on this. But I’ll come back to this later on after we’ve built up a clearer picture of the chap behind the tag. Speaking of which, for those people who are thinking, “That Gamertag looks familiar”, where might we have seen you about on the site?

V: You may have seen my name on a bunch of solutions. I'm currently sitting second on the site leaderboard for solutions. Most of them were from a couple years back before we had such a big rush of contributions here. Some of my older solutions don't hold up as well as the newer ones. You learn a lot the more you write. Maybe I'll revisit some of my older ones and touch them up a bit.

D: Second on the solutions leaderboard? Impressive. Before we get into that a little more, where did your Gamertag come from?

V: It's a bit of a play on my last name, which sounds a little like Vermin. We used to have a regular office game of Team Fortress back in the late 90s and I had a penchant for playing the spy. I got really good at mimicking other players' behaviours and would get a lot of backstab kills. One of my colleagues labeled me as Vermin for my sneaky underhanded tactics (and the tendency to mail around the office screenshots of my freshly-tagged kills). The name sort of stuck from there and I've used it in my gaming handles ever since.

D: Continuing with the solutions side of things, do you make sure to write a solution for every single achievement you earn, or do you only tackle those without guides already attached to them?

V: I try to, unless there's no room to improve on any existing solution. I often see a number of Achievements with several identical solutions in different words, and don't want to contribute to the spam. If I can come up with something different, or provide more clarity to an existing solution, I'll add one. More often than not though, I tend to add a comment to other well-written guides.

D: Are they mostly written, or do you upload many video solutions?

V: I'm not much of a video guy. I can write much faster than I can set up a camera and play through something. I leave the videos to the experts in that field.

D: How do you feel about the voting system in place on solutions? I know some people get quite annoyed when a trolling down vote appears on their solution with a large amount of uniquely positive feedback.

V: I think the voting system is great. A high number of positives (regardless of the negatives) usually indicates that the solution is valid, and has been successful for many people. I tend to ignore the negative votes for the most part. Do I get upset if people negative-vote one of my solutions? Not really. It's not like we get paid for this, right? But I respect negative votes a lot more if they're accompanied by some sort of comment on the solution why it wasn't liked.

D: Thinking back over all of those solutions you’ve written, you must have a couple of ‘stand out’ achievements for whatever reason? Which 360 achievements stick in your mind the most?

V: Hmmm... There have been so many. I think the ones I've earned that mean the most to me are the Officer Achievement in Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas, Vinyl Artist in Rock Band, and all the online achievements in Pro Evolution Soccer 2008. My colleagues and I spent about five nights a week playing multiplayer after work in Rainbow Six Vegas, and though I still have to return to mop up some more (including the Elite rank), those were some well-spent evenings. The endless setlist I completed with my daughter (I played on Hard guitar and she pulled of Medium bass), and had a great afternoon doing so. And I think that PES 2008 really cemented my boosting relationship with fellow TA member St Tony22.

D: Have you ever written a solution for an achievement you’ve had a hand in creating as a lead game designer?

V: I've written five solutions for Too Human, though I didn't come up with those Achievements during the development process personally.

D: I understand you're an ex-staff member on TA. I still consider myself one of the ‘newbies’ so some of the previous staff members names have clearly passed me by I'm afraid. How do you come to part ways with your staff badge?

V: For awhile I was a member of the content editing staff. We were following up on reported solutions, verifying their accuracy, and started on the initial flagging work. Unfortunately, working irregular hours, managing a family, and trying to keep up with reporting standards just became a bit too much and I had to let my volunteer position here slide. I respect the amount of time that the current team has to dedicate to the site. It's not as easy as people might think.

D: Which part of the job was the hardest, or most time consuming?

V: I think it was definitely the reporting process. The team has a great, if not complicated, system in place for following a uniform procedure, rather than opening up the content freely like a Wiki format. While the open format is easier to jump in and work with, it's difficult to track changes and keep the integrity of the content. The team is very focused on ensuring that the site maintain the best possible database of accurate information.

D: It’s a good job we have a healthy rotation of dedicated staff. I feel it lifts the site above the other alternatives out there on the internet. Have you detached yourself completely from ‘admin’ roles now?

V: Depending on where in the development cycle my current project is, I have more or less time to volunteer. I still try to get more solutions in where I can contribute, and from time to time I try to continue my contributions to VGRebirth. I submitted a lot of the data on VGR's GameCube and Xbox sections in the past, as well as uploading a lot of scans from my personal collection. They had a smaller set of trusted editors that could more freely update the content, so it was easier to work on mass submissions. I'm also a frequenter of CGCC (Classic Game Collectors of Canada), but after our database efforts fell short, I'm more of a lurker over there. I spend so much time trying to get achievements (thanks largely in part to TA's abundant stats pages), I don't have as much time for other endeavours these days.

D: Is your involvement with the CGCC purely for ‘fun’ or do you have an active role in helping to organise the group?

V: I'm far from being a founding member, but I was an active member during some of the ensuing discussions for future plans for the organization. Ultimately though, we're all just big fans of collecting games, and trying to pass on games directly into the hands of other collectors, rather than through middle-man dealers who are in it for pure profit.

D: I’d like to know a little more about this group. What is classed as a ‘classic game’ amongst yourselves?

V: I think we all have different ideas of what a 'classic game' would be. Having grown up in the initial days of games, my idea of classic goes much farther back than say somebody who grew up in the NES or SNES days. I'd consider the "big three" of Atari 2600, Intellivision, and Colecovision to be most commonly falling under that heading.

D: How many titles would you say you have amassed amongst you all? How many do you have yourself?

V: Amongst all of us? I'd have to say literally in the hundreds of thousands. I've got about 1,000 in my collection now. I've downsized a lot. At one point I remember being well over 2400.

D: Now that’s what you call a collection! What prompted you to downsize your collection so substantially?

V: Marriage, ha ha. And also realizing how much money I was pumping into a collection I'd never have time to play. I wasn't just about collecting, I wanted to play these games, too. I used to have a room in my basement with custom-built shelving for storing and displaying them all, but after selling the house and remarrying, my priorities shifted toward spending time with my family and focusing my collecting on primarily Xbox 360. Achievements make games more enjoyable for me. That said, I still won't part with my Intellivision, which I've had since I was 10, my Colecovision, or my Dreamcast collections.

D: How does your wife get along with your gaming hobbies (both playing and collecting). Is she sympathetic enough to let you get on without too much hassle?

V: When I met my wife, I made it quite clear to her that I was a gamer. It's something that I grew up with, and from which I have never strayed. I sold games for 10 years before becoming a developer, and it wasn't something that I would ever be able to erase from my genetic code. She doesn't really game much herself, aside from the occasional game of Angry Birds or Pac-Man, but she understands my passion and allows me my indulgence. The fact that it brings in a steady paycheque helps though, too.

D: My next question has to be, between a full time job, a family and the usual daily routine how on earth do you find time to squeeze in time in front of the Xbox?

V: It's not always easy. I'm up at 6am for work every weekday, and get home anywhere from 6:30 to 9pm. When I do get home "on time", I try to spend as much time with my wife and daughters before they all go to bed. Fortunately, I only sleep on average about 4 hours per night. It's not something I recommend, but I've been doing it for over 20 years. I hung out with some friends that used to take naps all the time - and the rest of us spent a lot of time waiting for them to get ready before we headed out for the evening. That drove me nuts. There always seems to be so much I want to do and not enough time, that I conditioned myself to require less sleep so that I could squeeze more out of my day. I'm sure somewhere along the line, that time is going to come off my lifespan, ha ha, but as the song says "I'll live while I'm alive, sleep when I'm dead."

D: I’ve heard it said before that four hours sleep a night is enough for an adult. Though I’m not sure I’d cope, it clearly works for you! With this in mind, how much time do you get to devote to gaming in an average week?

V: I think on average I probably get about 35 hours in a week for games around my other commitments. I have other interests too, like reading and following some of my favourite television programs. They just cancelled three of them though, so that might open up some more game time. :)

D: And staying with the gaming theme now, I’d like to talk more about your work in the gaming industry. What inspired you to get started working with games, and how did it all begin for you?

V: As I mentioned before, games were very much a part of my life growing up. But I think the moment I had my epiphany was while playing the original King's Quest on my PCjr. I vividly recall telling my father that when I got older I was going to move to Coarsegold, California and work for Sierra making computer games.

I stuck to that path, going to the University of Waterloo out of high school and majoring in Honors Math and Computer Science. Unfortunately, while I was there, I decided that I didn't really want to spend the rest of my life sitting behind a computer screen. (Yes, the irony now, that being what I do.) I changed schools and shifted my focus to Business and Economics, while working part-time at first Toys R Us and then Electronics Boutique selling videogames and keeping myself connected to that which I enjoyed so much.

After finishing school, I moved into management at EB and met Denis Dyack, president of Silicon Knights, who was a regular customer along with many of the other employees of his studio. We would talk a lot about games, and more specifically design theories, while he was in the store, and eventually he recruited me to work as a game designer on Too Human for the Sony PlayStation in 1998. The rest, as they say, is history.

D: What genre of game is your ‘speciality’. Is there any type you don’t have any involvement with?

V: I'd say my specialty is action adventures. Telling a narrative story with the player controlling the action along the way. I haven't had any experience in driving or sports games. I've had some ideas for features to add to some of my favourite sports games, but I haven't pursued any career opportunities down that path.

D: And how about platform? Do you design games specifically for the PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, or is it broader than that?

V: Lately I've been working on games for the PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 platforms. Though in the past I've also worked on the Sony PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Nintendo GameCube.

D: Do you find that because you’re massively involved in designing games and inextricably linked with the development process, that you play games with a different mindset to perhaps your average gamer? Are you on the lookout perhaps for ‘tricks of the trade’, development techniques, bugs etc, or can you switch off and enjoy the game for what it is?

V: Absolutely. It's definitely an occupational hazard. I remember reaching a point where I didn't particularly enjoy playing any more because you have this tendency to overanalyze everything you play. You get in the habit of nitpicking some things, while trying to reverse engineer others. That's why you see a lot of sports and racing games on my Gamercard. I don't work on those, so I can more openly immerse myself without that nagging voice in the back of my head critiquing everything. There is still stuff that I pick up and learn from those games that I can apply to my own work, but it seems to happen more subliminally.

D: So it is the case that working with games detracts from your enjoyment of playing them?

V: Aside from that dark phase I mentioned above, working with games has really broadened my horizons. I play all kinds of games, good games and not so good games, often for "research purposes" and end up liking something I thought I may have never otherwise played. I have a healthy rivalry with one of my colleagues right now on the completion percentage leaderboard too.

D: Readers will no doubt be interested to know what games you’ve worked on, can you give us a brief list?

V: I've worked on three released titles, being Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem and Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes for the Nintendo GameCube, as well as Too Human for the Xbox 360. I've had a couple other projects not yet released, but I can't discuss those at this time.

D: Are you currently at work on any titles you can talk about?

V: The studio where I currently work is nearing the release of Dungeons & Dragons: Daggerdale on PC, Xbox LIVE, and PSN. But you'll have to wait and see what our team is working on next.

D: Are you excited to get Dungeons and Dragons: Daggerdale out there to the general public, or are game releases generally quite nervy periods, waiting for the reviews to roll in?

V: It's really a mix of both. Wrapping up a title is exhilarating. Feeling the culmination of all the hard work that goes into making a game finally wrap up is huge. At the same time, you're hoping that people enjoy what you produced. Reviews are reviews, ultimately it's the game player in your target audience that you want to appease. I don't buy into the whole "We make games we want to play" mentality. Trust me, at the end of a project's life cycle, that game is the last thing you want to play. You should make a game that pleases both your audience, and yourself. If you don't enjoy what you're doing, you're in the wrong line of work. I suppose that's easy for me to say, since my job and my hobby are so closely linked.

D: Do you have any involvement in how those sought after Gamerscore points are distributed, and can you give us any information on how achievement lists are usually born? Is it a ‘one man’ kind of thing, or do a few people put their heads together?

V: In my experience, usually when the initial Game Design Document is put together, the Lead Designer sets out a list of Achievements based on where he feels he wants the player experience to be focused. Microsoft has a great set of guidelines to suggest ways you can balance your achievements toward various components of your game. As the development progresses, sometimes the scope changes, or the manner in which you play the game takes a couple turns and those initial achievements don't fit so well any more. In the end the whole team tends to contribute to the achievement list.

D: How about when your project is finished? Do you ever get your hands on advanced copies of a game, or is that a definite no-no?

V: I think we got our copies of ED and MGS early. Too Human released shortly before I left the company though, so I got mine about a year later for $9.99 at EB Games. No joke!

D: As a Lead Designer, what are your opinions on Kinect? Have you ever observed any of the development tools for the hardware?

V: I can't discuss whether or not I've worked with the dev hardware but I've played Kinect at our office Festivus party. I had a blast. I want one, but don't really have a lot of room to play it in my current setup. We've got lots of floor space at the office, and I think we used every square inch of it during our Dance Central face-offs at the party.

D: From a professional viewpoint, what are your expectations from Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect? Does it offer something truly new for developers, or is it difficult to extract a meaningful and revolutionary experience from the device?

V: I think it takes the concept that began with the Wii and dials it up to eleven. One of the things that I found with the Wii, is that so many mini-game compilations came out so early in its lifetime that they pretty much exhausted the gameplay variations that you could pull out of the Wii Remote. With the full range of human motion at your disposal, I suspect that we'll continue to see more unique experiences come out of the Kinect down the road.

D: After spending thirteen years in the industry, what is proudest accomplishment, or project you felt you gained the most from?

V: I definitely gained the most from Eternal Darkness. You always remember your first, right? It's still regarded as one of the most underrated GameCube (and survival horror) titles to date. I still find it funny to look back at my first assignment - dragging objects from one room into another, and waiting sometimes several minutes for the lists to refresh. I questioned at the time what I signed up for, though I did manage to read The Hunt for Red October in two days while waiting. As the project progressed, getting some great design tips from Miyamoto (indirectly - unfortunately we never met) and the EAD team really opened up my eyes.

D: Of the titles you’ve played, which ones are the most notable in terms of best production values? I guess I’m asking, which game have you enjoyed the most and would have loved to have worked on?

V: I definitely have to tip my hat to Assassin's Creed and Batman: Arkham Asylum (Xbox 360). Those ones really stand out for me. Production values as a whole have really risen since I started in this line of work, and it's great to see the results. I also have to say that I had a soft spot for games made by Grin. They weren't always received well, but I saw a lot of potential in them.

D: And what advice could you offer to anyone wanting to pursue a career in games design?

V: Make sure you're getting into it for the right reasons. Don't go into it to get rich; don't do it because you're good at Call of Duty and want to pwn n00bs from the inside out; don't do it because you think it will be easy. Do it because you have an unquenchable passion for games and you can't imagine yourself doing anything else. I've seen the industry break a lot of people, and if you're not prepared for the hardship and sacrifice that often come with the territory, you can crash hard. That said, if it is something you're very passionate about, it can be the best work experience you could hope for. Not every day is a death march - you get to work with a lot of creative and talented people and unique personalities and every day brings something different. And in the end, when you overhear somebody talking passionately about something that you helped create, it's supremely rewarding.

D: Your involvement with games is of course a daily occurrence at the moment, but what’s your earliest gaming memory? When did you get bitten by the proverbial bug?

V: My parents bought me and my brother a Coleco Telstar unit back in 1978. It was a Pong-alike that had three games - tennis (2 paddles), hockey (4 paddles) and handball (1 paddle). I wish I still had it. We spent hours watching those lines slide up and down the screen as the little square bounced back and forth to the blip-bloop sounds on our black and white television. That's what got me started, but I wasn't truly hooked until we got our Intellivision two years later. My first games for that system were the pack-in Las Vegas Poker & Blackjack, as well as Major League Baseball, Armor Battle, and Astrosmash. I still have all of those, and still fire up Astrosmash from time to time (especially on Game Room for the achievements, of course).

D: And if the makers of the Telstar and Intellivision had the foresight to include achievements in their games, what might your first ‘Achievement Unlocked’ have been!

V: If Telstar had them, it would have probably been "Win 5 consecutive games of Hockey". My first Intellivision achievement would have been "Blow up your enemy's tank with a mine".

D: This brings us back to TA and statistics. How important are achievements to you in a game?

V: Now here's where I'm probably going to sound like I contradict myself. I love Achievements - I'll get into the why in a moment - but they're not the be-all-end-all. I strive for 100% completion, but I'm not going to burn myself out to do it, and I'm not going to go overboard and say pay money to somebody for letting me beat them because they're at the top of the NHL 08 Leaderboard. I'll use the cheap method from time to time, but try to get them more legitimately if I can.

Right now I'm using a technique that I refer to as "Bottom-Feeding". It starts with a Bean Dive, but then I use the "My Easy Achievements" list as a to-do list. It's tanking my TA ratio, but my gamerscore and completion percentage have been skyrocketing lately. Basically I look at the lowest-ratio Achievements that I haven't yet unlocked, and work my way down the list. I don't always limit myself to progressing one-by-one; I usually give myself the freedom to pick any achievement on the first page to go for. It's a method that has also gotten me into a lot of games that had sit idle on my shelf for ages. I finished my first playthrough of Mass Effect this way.

When I started this in February, I had a ton of missed Achievements in games that I still own in the 1.01 through 1.05 range. Now with the exception of one or two stragglers (and Fallout 3 that I need to gear myself up for), the lowest ratios on my to-do list are around 1.23. It doesn't sound like much, but with about 186 games in my current collection, it's been quite an achievement (pun intended).

But why do I like achievements so much? For a long time I got into the habit of documenting my gaming progress, and making notes about what I've done or encountered in games. Over the years I've either developed or uncovered something that has been described to me as Data Addiction. It's like a form of OCD I guess where I have an obsession with information, and lists. That's what really drove me to my work with VGR. When I heard about Achievements during the development phase of the Xbox 360 hardware, I thought "Wow! This system tracks your progress through games automatically, which would save me a ton of writing." Ultimately it was a little different than I had envisioned, but nontheless, I was an instant addict.

D: This sounds interesting. So what exactly did/do you document when you’re playing a game?

V: It started out with drawing maps and listing out weapons, items, and monsters I'd discovered while playing games like Might & Magic: Secret of the Inner Sanctum and Pool of Radiance on the PC. I also used to track my player stats and box scores back before sports games did it so much for you. At one point I was also listing every SNES game I ever played, and provided a capsule review of it.

Now it's almost like a sickness. I have five Excel spreadsheets and two Word docs that I maintain. The word docs have a list of all the outstanding achievements I have yet to unlock in the games I own, colour-coded by what I perceive to be their difficulty level. I also have a doc in which I track of all the games I buy, where I've left off playing them, and the date I last played it. It makes it easier to jump back into a game after a long time, or ensure that I don't let a game lapse so long that I completely forget.

The Excel sheets start with a log in which I track what games I played on what day, what achievements I unlocked, how much gamerscore I earned, and how many hours I played. Another tracks the percentage of Gamerscore earned in each game, percentage of achievements unlocked, and number of hours played measured against the price I paid for the game so I can judge where I'm most getting my money's worth. The third sheet separates all my achievements by genre, and a fourth tracks all my game purchases for the year, so I can assess whether I'm getting out of control. Again, ironic, no? I had a fifth one going, but had to retire it when Mygamercard.net shut down. I was comparing my Gamerscore in individual games against the Xbox LIVE community averages. I told you it was a disease, didn't I?

I suppose I should take the time to amalgamate the spreadsheets all into one, since so much of the information can share across the different tables. But that's a project for some time when I burn out a little and want to step away from the console for a bit. And when I really think about it, TA tracks a lot of the same info too. I guess I just like to have a copy of my own in case I ever need it.

D: So I’d guess when you discovered TrueAchievements it was something of a ‘Eureka!’ moment! Which statistic on TA do you treasure the most?

V: I think the stat I treasure the most is the completion percentage. Before TA I was more focused just on Gamerscore. I admit I've played some bad games just for the points. But completion percentage makes me feel like I've maximized what a game has to offer me.

D: If you could add a statistic that TA doesn’t track, what might that be to appease the statistician within you?

V: I think it would be great if they could track in-game time. The data I pull for my spreadsheet is gathered off Raptr.com, but quite often I find holes in their information. It's not uncommon for me to find that a couple hours here and there, sometimes even days, aren't logged by their system.

D: I would also like to point out here that you maintain a healthy looking blog with plenty of entries to entertain new followers or readers. So it’s not just solutions you’re writing.

V: I don't know if I'd go quite that far. My 2010 retrospective has taken me five months and I'm still stalled at October. (Fortunately all my ridiculous record-keeping makes it easy to pull up the info I need.) I try to blog more frequently, but I get so wrapped up in my games sometimes, that when 3am rolls around I have to push off my blogging in favour of those couple hours of sleep. I think I've intended to seriously maintain a blog about six different times, and they always languish behind. I have started getting more interested in writing reviews again, in my own personal style. I review a game based on my experience and impressions, not constraining myself to a fixed format or scoring system. You can check out my latest reviews for Prey (Xbox 360) and Need for Speed: Most Wanted to see my new approach.

D: Well, we need to bring the interview to an end now at the risk of running too long. It’s a real shame as conducting this interview has been a genuine pleasure. Unfortunately for me however, you’re too interesting a person, and to get in questions I wanted to ask you we’ve had to miss some of the ‘regulars’! I hope the interview has, on the whole, been an OK experience though!

V: I think I've blown clear through the risk of running too long. Once I get started, sometimes it's hard to stop. You can always PM me if you want to discuss anything else offline.

D: As always, it’s time for the final word to be passed on to Vermin360. My thanks again to him for being a great interviewee and sharing an insight into his life with us all here at TA.

V: Thanks, Davie. It's been a pleasure. toast

I hope you'll all forgive us for the length of this interview (could this beat our interview with ShinUkyo - maybe I should run a word count?), but I feel it's a worthwhile read.

If you think you've got something great to offer for next Sunday, or know somebody who has, feel free to send me a PM detailing why you feel you'd be a good read on the front page. Detail is key my friends!

If you’d like to be featured in a future Community Interview, or would like to nominate a gamer on this site to be featured themselves, please send a PM to DavieMarshall