I kind of wondered how long it would be before Sam Speaks would catch me totally off guard. It turns out that answer was on January 16th, when I talked to Sean Noonan. Originally I figured I’d be talking to a fun indie dev behind the cute runner game Jack B. Nimble. Then, a few days before we agreed to chat, I figured maybe I should look into this guy just a tad more. It turns out I had accidentally scheduled an interview with the lead level designer of Splash Damage and had no idea. Sean has had a long and varied career in gaming, so much so that we spent over an hour talking about it and I couldn’t reasonably fit it into one article.
So welcome to the second part of the first two-parter of Sam Speaks. If you haven't yet, make sure you read the first part. This time I talk to Sean about his solo project Jack B. Nimble, his time at Ubisoft where he worked on Watch Dogs, Far Cry 4, and Far Cry Primal, his time working on Star Citizen, and finally how he got the job at Splash Damage as the lead level designer for Gears Tactics. Strap in, this is an interesting one.
TechRaptor: Now before we get to the Ubisoft years, you released a game that you developed completely by yourself called Jack B. Nimble. That has got to be a lot of work.
Sean Noonan: Yeah. So I actually developed that while I was at Ubisoft. It was, I think, two years into development of Watch Dogs? I went to an indie presentation, I think it was an IGDA presentation, and saw some games from game jams from the previous week, there was a weekend game jam. The games are quite simple, but I was super impressed by the amount of work that people were able to do in a weekend, and I just thought I've been doing this professionally, I think at that point for... let's say six or seven years, so surely I could do this.
So a couple of us got together and we did the Global Game Jam, and at that point a couple of people had shown me a few different engines and I discovered I was able to make games on my own, which I didn't know before. I genuinely thought that was all beyond me. I was pigeonholed. I just started working on stuff at that point. I was making little prototypes and then I made one big prototype for a game jam and shared it at work. They said "oh you should turn that into a phone game, that'd work on the phone."
So I started working on that. It was basically in the background when I had any down time when work wasn't too heavy. I would go home and still feel like working on something. I would work on it then, so it took a long time to actually develop, but that's just because it was a free time thing.
TechRaptor: Now you did absolutely everything in this game yourself?
Sean: Yeah, except the music which was my friend Barry Topping. He did the music, which is phenomenal. He did an excellent job on that.
TechRaptor: Since normally you're working with 3D models and now you're working with 2D sprites and a Game Boy throwback aesthetic, is it strange going from one to the other?
Sean: That was the project I actually used to learn how to do sprites. Obviously my entire childhood I've been playing sprite-based games up until, I think, Starwing [Star Fox in the States]. I guess, a bit further on, you get Quake and so on. Yeah, I love those things and, again, I don't really know why I didn't try it myself but it was something that came kind of naturally because I guess I consumed so much of that over the years, pixel art, it wasn't actually too difficult to at least get the basics down, which I think I did with Jack B. Nimble.
It means you can focus on other parts of the game, because making an entire game on your own is quite difficult. You have to do everything, right? So if you limit one dimension, that's quite a lot of extra stuff you don't have to think about. You don't have to think about coding that additional dimension, you don't have to think about drawing that additional dimension. It's just and easy way to limit the workload so that you're able to actually achieve something. That's how I see it.
TechRaptor: So you're in the Ubisoft years now. Your first major project there was Watch Dogs. I guess it was nice to go back to, after Kinect Star Wars and Streets of Rage and all that, it was nice to go back to an open world game?
Sean: Yeah, yeah. I mean, like, I'd accepted the job probably about three or four weeks before the E3 reveal of the game, so I had actually not seen the game before I accepted the job. I heard about it, I knew what kind of game it was, it sounded cool and interesting, but I hadn't seen it and I didn't know how big it was going to be. I remember watching E3 on my iPad and thinking I was pretty happy about what I was going to do.
It was great to be back making stuff open world again. As I was hinting at before, when talking about Wheelman, this time I had a bit more of a budget to work with and the team was bigger, there was that support to shoot for the moon and get there. That was a huge difference for me.
So I ended up working on some of the key campaign missions of the game, and that meant I got to see a lot more aspects of things like cutscenes and scripted events. Where a lot of the money goes into these productions. It was interesting to see what actually goes into the production and such things.
TechRaptor: You worked on several of the more important missions. What went into... say you had to start designing this mission for Watch Dogs. What was the process behind that?
Sean: For any mission or a particular one?
TechRaptor: I'm going to be honest, I can't think of any particular one off the top of my head right now. So just start with your favorite, I guess. What went into designing your favorite mission?
Sean: So I would say Collateral is probably my favorite because I think it was the first mission I really fleshed out on that project. So basically the information I had was that the character was going to be ambushed, they were going to have a sidekick with them, and they have to get to a destination. That was basically the high-level I was given. So with that I had to come up with something cool with the writers. I worked with them on where they were in the story.
The main thing was your base of operations was going to get destroyed in this mission, so you were going to escape from it after being ambushed, and you were going to help a sidekick out with it, who ended up, in the end, helping you a lot more. Which, again, that was down to playtesting to be honest.
Working out where the key beats were in that mission, it was the intro, so introducing the sidekick character which is Clara. She was basically warning you that there was some bad stuff going down, and at that point... I can't remember exactly if she was responsible for you being attacked, but basically at that point your place gets attacked and that cutscene was something I just had to work around. So it was in the base of operations, I had to basically get the player out of there. That was my first point of action, basically.
So I did that by transitioning from a cutscene to a sort of quick time event... well, it's not a quick time because you're in full control outside of your movement. So you basically had to free her, and as she's running out a guy goes to shoot her but she doesn't have a gun at that point. You shoot the guy, she gets a gun, and then you make your way out onto the balcony. At that point I had free reign, I just need to get Aiden and Clara both to wherever I put the final destination.
I wanted to lean into whatever levels of emergence I had. I knew it was going to be the second floor of a motel, since that's where the base of operations was, so when I was building it I had to make sure if you were to jump over the railings and onto the floor below you just get a little bit of damage and you wouldn't instantly die. I wanted to make sure there are always options to go up and down at certain points, but I still wanted to choke the player where I felt the gameplay needed to get tightest.
It was just a really fun experience building that level, because it was so simple. It was start at a point, get to a point, kill a bunch of dudes in between. It just meant I got to play with all the different ingredients in the game. I set up cameras that have certain lines of sight on certain explosive elements. So maybe one camera could reach one camera to hack another camera and then blow up a transformer and the lights would go out so you could run through and enemies wouldn't be able to see you so you could take them out silently.
That was sort of a blast, because I just kept adding more layers of stuff and it meant in the years since I'm able to go back and watch people play on YouTube and see how many different ways people play the game. It's as much fun for me to make as it seems to be for people to play, and that's excellent to me.
TechRaptor: I'm curious. Are you in the camp that believes Watch Dogs should have been a game about just watching dogs?
Sean: [Laughter.] I actually know somebody who made a game around the same time as Watch Dogs where you did exactly that. Interestingly, there weren't any dogs in the game.
TechRaptor: They didn't show up until the sequel.
TechRaptor: My co-writer literally just sent this question right now. He wants to know if, internally, the game was known as "Watch space Dogs" or "Watch underscore Dogs".
Sean: Internally it had a different name, to be honest. A lot of game projects, especially at Ubisoft actually, they go by code names. So they're usually called something else, and that code name can often be there until you ship the game. Obviously the title screens are set up and everything, and whenever people are talking about it they switch between the game title and the code name. I think most the time, at least for the first couple of months, people referred to it by the code name. Later on... I think it was "Watch underscore Dogs."
TechRaptor: Are you allowed to say what the code name was, or is that under an NDA?
Sean: It's under NDA, surprisingly. Code names are very secretive. I think it could be because if somebody works them out they might see a pattern or something, I don't know.
TechRaptor: After that you go to work on both Far Cry 4 and Far Cry Primal, which was more open world stuff. I guess you used a lot of the things you learned from Watch Dogs and Ubisoft open world games to apply to those two?
Sean: Oh yeah, I definitely got to really lean into emergent play in those. Specifically in Far Cry 4 the missions I worked on were mostly the missions that introduced the hunters, which were the new bow-type enemy. The new feature with those was that they were able to disappear from your radar. So once you tagged them, if they ever got out of view and hid themselves somewhere like in bushes, they would become untagged. As far as the players were aware, they'd be in stealth.
So I had to make environments that utilized that. So that was like the Crackdown thing, using different archetypes to make interesting gameplay. The missions I worked on in that were all centered around one point where you're either being attacked or you're basically picking off enemies in one space. In both cases they were free approach, so you could approach your target however you wanted, and in the same way the targets would approach you any way they wanted. There would be different spawns and different points, and those bow wielding enemies would strafe a lot and they'd strafe between bushes and get detagged. So it was kind of hard to track them, so it was almost like a lower skilled player against the player.
Those archetypes were basically the primary archetypes in Far Cry Primal. Relying on the bow, melee attacks, and a huge fear of fire.
TechRaptor: Now one thing that I thought was really interesting, with Far Cry Primal, is you worked on the level Fly Like a Bird, which was basically a big Assassin's Creed Easter egg that a lot of people talked about. How did you go about designing a level that had to be a big reference to another Ubisoft game?
Sean: The character of Hurk, or in that game I believe he was called Urki, he's basically a joke character across the series. So in that game the missions were kind of joke missions with that character. With the mission I worked on, the idea was that he was trying to work out how birds could fly, and he figured, in his caveman way, it would be from using pieces of these different animals. The joke there was that all of the animals were completely innocent and very difficult to capture because they were the types of animals that disappear when you go near them. Sort of very small fish, tiny birds, that sort of thing. It was quite a difficult mission to find all these small creatures, and that was the joke of it. It was a lot of work for the pay off, and it was meant to make you feel like the character, I think.
The real joke just came from when we were trying to resolve how he was going to fail. If he was just going to fall we were thinking "but if he falls then it's a bit gross if he's going to land and be a pile of broken bones, or if he ragdolls that's going to look stupid."
To be honest I don't know where it came from, but I think there was just a collective thought. What if he jumped into hay? It was instantly everyone was like "yeah, obviously." I mean, we should do this, because the whole mission is a joke anyway and rather than it being at the player's expense let's put it at Urki's expense. It just seemed natural to put the Assassin's Creed eagle screech in there at the same time. That was fun, that was cool.
Because I wasn't there until the end of the project, I wasn't even sure that was going to end up in the game. So it was cool to see that once the game was actually released and it did make it in.
TechRaptor: After Ubisoft you had a brief stint with Cloud Imperium Games where you worked on the first-person shooter segment of Star Citizen. I think it's called Star Marine?
Sean: Yeah, so, I basically can quite easily split my time at Cloud Imperium into two. The first year I was working on Squadron 42, which was the single player campaign version of Star Citizen. Basically that's the one that got all the insane cast like Gillian Anderson and Gary Oldman. A hell of a lot of Game of Thrones people are in there, like Liam Cunningham. I was working on that side of it for the first year, mostly on a vertical slice. So that's basically a chunk of gameplay that's representative of the full game. So that's what I was working on.
Once the vertical slice was finished there was an opportunity for me to work on the multiplayer component. Specifically the first-person, because that's where my expertise was. So yeah, I moved into the designer role on Star Marine and I built the two maps for that and was basically responsible for the game modes and the mode itself from a design point of view.
That was fun. It was interesting to move on to something multiplayer, because I toyed with it in previous jobs, during prototype phases, and it was always quite satisfying to be able to play the game you're working on with other people. There were a few moments in Watch Dogs where I was able to do that and it was always fun. It doesn't feel like work when you get to test something after you worked on it and other people are playing with it at the same time, giving you instant feedback. That was a good time.
TechRaptor: Do you think difference working on a multiplayer map and a single player campaign level was pretty huge?
Sean: Oh yeah, totally. They're almost completely different skill sets, to be honest. I had to do a lot of learning for that. I think my work was strong, but I had to learn a lot to do it. It's like I was going back to my roots when I was modding things back in the day. For Half-Life I was mostly making multiplayer styled games because I didn't really know what scripting was back then. So if I made a level without enemies in it I could make something that was multiplayer. That was were I learned some lessons, but I was never really great at that.
So it took me until I was actually working on it for real to actually learn these things. Learning about choke points and game balance. Obviously you have some of these things in single player, but they're very different in approach in how you actually use these things. It is quite a different skill set. It's not that you can't easily balance between the two, but you almost have to relearn your craft.
TechRaptor: I guess I got to get the obvious question out of the way. Do you think Star Citizen-- do you know when it's going to come out?
Sean: No, I don't know when it's going to come out, but I think it will. You can currently play the MMO side of it now, the persistent universe, which I did some work on. Only a little bit, not much. It was one of my last tasks before I left the studio. But yeah, I think it will. I don't know to what level, I don't know what level people want it because most of my work was always on the very standalone stuff. Squadron 42 was quite a standalone product, Star Marine again is a standalone product. They're all within the larger product, but I was very much connected to those things. I think it will, I don't know when, but there's definitely momentum there and they're doing crazy stuff. Really crazy stuff. It's real impressive.
TechRaptor: So now we finally move on to about todayish where you're currently the lead level designer for Splash Damage. I guess the obvious question is how did you end up getting that role?
Sean: I applied for it. [Laughter.] I just guess it was time, I suppose. It's a difficult thing to answer really. I was interested in leading a team, I had some experience doing it briefly on Streets of Rage, I lead a small team then. This time I'm leading a slightly larger team. But yeah, it was something I wanted to get in to because I've done a lot of the graft over the years, it was time to move in to something that involves a few new skills, you know? Trying to expand my skill set.
TechRaptor: And right now you're working on Gears Tactics?
Sean: Yep, I am working on Gears Tactics and I can not talk about it at all.
TechRaptor: I figure it was worth trying at least. At the very least can you say when Gears Tactics is going to come out or is that also no?
Sean: I can't say a thing, sorry.
TechRaptor: Worth a shot. Alright. So we've gone over this pretty crazy span of your career where you've worked on a ton of things. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to get into the same positions that you were in?
Sean: Know what you want to do. That's probably the biggest thing I can give to anyone. Based on the types of applications I've received over the years. Know what position you want, do the research on what the jobs are. Like I alluded to before, when I started out, the competition wasn't quite as strong, I might not have gotten where I am because I didn't know what I wanted, and I think you need to. There's a lot of people out there who are looking for the same job. You need to know what position you want, you need to know about the roll.
Then, once you're at that point, know your process. Be able to talk through your process. If there's any holes in your process, be open about it. Do the research, try to patch those holes up. Know your process, definitely. It's something that will come up in most interviews you'll have.
TechRaptor: Well I do want to thank you for taking the time to talk with me and basically going over your insane career.
Sean: Oh, thanks. It was awesome.
TechRaptor: Yeah, it's really interesting getting to hear all this, and thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
We'd like to once again thank Sean for taking the time to talk with us.