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Post feature RSS From Modder to Game Developer: Diego Jimenez

An interview with former modder Diego Jimenez, now a level designer at DICE.

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Monomyth, or the hero's journey, is the defined basic pattern that is found in narrative and adhered to by many of today's storytellers. It describes the fundamentals of what every protagonist goes through to become a hero.

This feature sets out to interview (former) mod developers that have managed to break into the professional games industry and turn their hobby and/or passion into a career. In the process, we'll share some insight and inspiration on how you too can turn from modder to pro and what you can do to better your chances. It's a journey that every mod developer contemplates at least once — the modder's journey.

For the first interview in this series I sat down with Diego Jimenez, a level designer employed at the lavish Swedish headquarters of DICE (Digital Illusion Creative Entertainment, for those of you in the know) to talk about his experiences so far in the game industry and how he managed to get his foot in the door.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed in this interview are pertaining to the individual interviewed and are not necessarily those of DICE or EA.

Ryan Anderson: Hey Diego, thanks for taking the time out of your schedule to talk with me today. Why don't you introduce yourself; tell us what exactly you do for a living and where you do it?

Diego Jimenez: Hello there, Ryan! My name is Diego Jimenez, and I am a self-described jungle boy hailing from one of the last undiscovered little corners of the world. The land of fiery volcanoes, ill-humored monkeys and cunning street muggers [He's talking about Costa Rica - ed]. To everyone's disbelief I now find myself designing single-player levels for Battlefield: Bad Company. It's been precisely two years this week since I have been here, and we just wrapped up the game.

RA: Modding was a part of what helped you land your position at DICE, let's take a look at how you started out modding for games. Where did you get your start in modding and how many mods have you actually worked on?

DJ: I was 14 when I dabbled naively in mod-making for Half-Life 1 and Deus Ex. At 16, I had a newfound sense of purpose and would spend the next 4 years or so learning on my own and working on what would eventually become 7th Serpent. We put out the first episode in mid-2006 to generally good reviews, with a subsequent release being readied right now. I did the level environments, as well as designing the gameplay and helping to manage the overall effort.

I also spent an entire year doing environmental level design (ie. level geometry) in an as of yet unfinished project dubbed Mona: The Assassin for Max Payne 2 — essentially an unofficial level pack, which will likely be finally released later this year. I was always a bit selective on what I would put out there for people to play so strictly speaking, my name has only been on a a single public product up to this point — the aforementioned 7th Serpent episode.

LobbySome of Diego's handiwork on 7th Serpent.

RA: So when did you decide it was time to actually start getting paid to design games? Did you receive any interest from studios as a result of them just happening upon your work or was it something you had to actively pursue?

DJ: I was originally aiming for an environmental design position (art) so I felt there were still a number of skills I wanted to get before seriously reaching out for a job overseas. On an impulse I decided to probe the waters to see what would happen, applying to over three dozen companies for level design positions so it was definitively something I had to pursue very actively. One offer fell through because of US visa complications. And then there was DICE. I had figured they were a long shot given that they were a multiplayer game company, and the job was for a gameplay scripting position. But a hands-on design test and several interviews later, I was in disbelief —these famed Swedes were offering me a job!

RA: Costa Rica to Stockholm, Sweden is quite the transition, how comfortable was it? Are you fluent in Swedish yet?

DJ: Jag måste öva! :) I hate to disappoint your readers, but it wasn't all the culture shock it probably should have been. DICE made the transition very easy for me. I continue to fail the demands of the independent living —look no further than my overflowing kitchen sink or laundry basket— but I am not blaming Sweden for that (yet!)

However, when you move by yourself to a foreign country the language becomes a big barrier to truly feel at home. I like to think that my command of the language is such that no 9 year old kid in Sweden has currently got a thing on me. And I am steadily going after the 10 year olds now! :)

DICE offices in StockholmWhat a view!

RA: When it came down to making the decision to employ you, how much of it came down to your modding history and portfolio? What were the other factors?

DJ: Given that this was a design job and the bulk of my portfolio was artistic-level environments — I wouldn't really say the portfolio had a lot to do with it. It was more on the non-tangible experience that you hint at on your resume and elaborate on interviews where I managed to convey my game design knowledge, leadership skills on a team setting and analytical mindset. Having managed the major mod project I had been involved with and overseeing the overall gameplay; it gave me valuable experience that I was also able to showcase by presenting design documentation, level layouts, etc on the interview.

A major element in the equation that allowed me to bridge that perceived gap between the job requirements and my past history was the design test that DICE sent me. They asked me to spend a few weeks designing a small level under a strict set of guidelines. No art, only gameplay and they liked what I came up with. That is how I was able to secure an on-site interview to "seal the deal".

From conversations with my colleagues after the fact, I ultimately I got my job not necessarily because of my (lacking) experience or the pretty pictures on my portfolio —which would have never been enough— but because I convinced them that here was a guy that was serious, proactive, who could work on a team setting and who delivered well on the task he was given. I can only thank DICE for being open enough to allow me to prove those qualities.

RA: When you mention the words serious and proactive, I'm immediately reminded of your large reference and texture database you compiled yourself which, I think, actually borders on obsessive. Since you didn't have any formal training, what sort of steps did you take to make level design your craft instead of just a hobby?

DJ: It most definitively borders on the obsessive! But that was a personal obsession, mind you, not necessarily something I would recommend for other aspiring designers. :) You pose a good question. I think it comes down to being proactive (yes, I love that word!) and being eager to learn, which enables you to find growth opportunities everywhere. I would analyze games critically to try to figure what they made me feel —and how they managed to made me feel this way— what I liked about them, and what I thought they had failed at. I would troll Gamasutra and other industry websites to try to educate myself. But most importantly, I would always keep myself busy doing something. Nothing quite teaches you more than hands-on experience.

Formal education is one fine way to go about it, but if you have got the drive, I believe you can teach yourself to do just as much in this field. The tools are out there.

RA: How many others from DICE have come from a modding background?

DJ: Not so many artists or producers, but quite a few of the designers and most of the level designers come from that background. We have been growing fast over the last few years and the company has always been very open to hiring modders.

DICE offices in StockholmDICE even has their own gun-porn room.

RA: You've lead at least one mod team right through to a final release. Did the experience you gain there transfer over to working in a studio environment?

DJ: Positively! If you can somehow collaborate closely over many months or years with people that are not getting paid for their effort and who work halfway across the world from you, surely you can get along with highly motivated professionals toiling feverishly at an arm's length. In mod-making you learn to be resourceful and focusing on getting things done, as opposed to being distracted by personal grievances or "team politics".

RA: What do you miss from the good ole' modding days that you can't do now? Do you still have any time for playing games/mods?

DJ: The single biggest thing I miss is having significant ownership over my own work. Sometimes in large projects a level designer, for example, may not get to see a specific level through to completion or for an extended period of time. You can get shuffled constantly to work on different levels at different times so the payoff can be a lot more diluted than on a focused one-man modding operation. It seems the industry is trending towards this kind of multi-tasking approach. It may well be the best way to produce a game or make a milestone, but it can be less fulfilling in some ways than making mods.

I honestly gave up on finishing games a long time ago. I am not the kind of guy that works 9 hours a day doing games and then goes home to do or play more games. To stay on top of the current trends I try to play games only for a level or two, figure out what makes them tick and then move on.

RA: DICE itself is a pretty large studio, which in turn is connected to EA — one of the goliaths of the games industry. Working within such a large corporate entity, do you still feel that you have any creative control? How much power to do you have to influence the design of a game from your position?

DJ: Fortunately for us, level design is at the core of the game making process; we essentially build the game from the tools and assets others do. So producers and leads aside, we inherently have more influence and added responsibility over the final gameplay experience than most other developers in the project.

Bad CompanyYet another nice view.

RA: So in Bad Company, I know most of the time it's a collaborative effort, but is there a part in the game that you are particularly proud of design-wise as a result of your handiwork?

DJ: Not only is it a very collaborative effort, but due to the nature of the project we were shuffled around tasks quite often, so it's hard to pinpoint something that was mostly "mine". Towards the later stages I was responsible for a lot of the stuff you see in the second level of the game. The sequence shown here was a lot of fun to make: Gametrailers.com

RA: What's the most fun you've had while working there? Any crazy level design bloopers?

DJ: In this game about Abrams tanks and Apache helicopters, an off-beat golf cart with a definite charm seemed doomed by the inevitable internal scope cuts, but was immediately bought back to life after one of our senior executives suddenly took a liking to it on a casual playtest through the game. :)

There's a lot of fun bloopers on the Behind the Scenes material branded with the Gold edition of Battlefield: Bad Company.

RA: So Bad Company is the game that you've been working on in your entire tenure at DICE, can you tell us if it's coming to the PC in the future? I'm sure modders would love to mess around with the Frostbite engine.

DJ: I wouldn't hold my breath. From day one this project was conceived as Battlefield for consoles and our focus has always been to get that right.

RA: What advice do you have for modders looking to turn pro?

DJ: My advice to modders is of the practical kind. Work by yourself, or in small teams of people you definitely trust. Release your mod incrementally rather than in one go —episodes for single player, incremental releases for multiplayer. Resist the feature creep. Seize the opportunity to go learn, to experiment freely now that millions of dollars and entire family incomes don't depend on you being in touch with the market. Use that flexibility to your advantage: come out from left field rather than trying to outdo full blown studios with big budgets.

But most of all, enjoy what you do in the amateur ranks. Because if you don't enjoy doing it on your spare time, what makes you think you will when you do it for a living? Cherish that stage of your career. I love my job, but I will tell you, you will never get a lot of those thrills again when working with high-stakes, large-scale commercial projects.

Bad CompanyBad Company let's you tear s**t up.

RA: Besides Bad Company, are there any other games/mods on the horizon that you are excited about? What was the last game you played?

DJ: The last game I played through and through was Call of Duty 4 — mad props to Infinity Ward for managing to make more with less, as they always have. I look forward to progressive-minded efforts like Arkane's The Crossing, anything by Quantic Dream or Warren Spector's next project for Disney —whatever it turns out to be. Also, the concept for The Path by Tale of Tales fascinates me to no end.

Modding-wise, a while ago I played an incredible mod for Unreal Tournament 2004 called Hollow Moon, which turned out to be right up my alley. I love "edgy", experimental mods that are not afraid of trying new things. For nostalgia's sake, I am excited about Black Mesa Source (resist the feature creep and get it out already people!) and the forthcoming High Definition Texture Project for Deus Ex.
RA: Thanks for taking the time out of your schedule for this interview Diego and congratulations on completing development work for your first shipped, AAA commercial title!

DJ: Lest I pass on the chance to be a shameless plug, Battlefield: Bad Company is out June 24th. Buy the game, and keep me employed!

DICE offices in Stockholm

Metafiz Author
Metafiz - - 504 comments

Just want to send out an extra thanks to Diego for getting together with me for this feature! Expect more of these interviews in the future.

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Midnitte - - 128 comments

Was a great article providing insight into the transition of hobby to profession. :)
Looking forward to future articles and indeed Bad Company. GL to you Diego!

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RogerRamjet - - 1,564 comments

Excellent interview and congrats to Diego on being able to present your talents to turn a hobby into a paying job, that now, opens the doors to the rest of your career.. well done...

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INtense! Staff
INtense! - - 4,104 comments

Great interview - Dice has some sweet game-themed rooms there. Very suave.

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Deathy - - 36 comments

Very nice and interesting interview..
I want more. ;D

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Broadsword530 - - 156 comments

Must be painful for him to be working on a console game :D
Really cool stuff though. Its really nice to see stuff like this.

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FJS - - 839 comments

Very interesting interview.
The game seems pretty good I'll give it a try.

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raxiv - - 57 comments

I know at least a few guys who broke into game industry from modding. For example, my dear friend Jey from DeathByDesign got a job in CryTek. He is currently developing 28monthslater mod for the CryEngine2.

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Angry_Beaver - - 7 comments

Very nice interview, some usefull reminders in there. And on behalf of the Black Mesa Team we are resisting the feature creep, we don't need the game to take longer to make than it already will :)

P.S. Talk about Black Mesa should go on it's page. This is just a reply to DJ should he read it.

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InAction - - 103 comments

I also got a job in the industry, but my way there is no way as near awesome as his was! Thumbs up Diego Jimenez, I'd buy the game on day one if I had a console. :)

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henriksultan - - 68 comments

Congrats to Diego and a great interview :)

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hushpuppy - - 761 comments


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Dragonlord - - 1,934 comments

A very good and interview especially with important questions and not filled with any bla-bla. An interesting read for anybody, that's for sure.

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formerlyknownasMrCP - - 892 comments

Geez seems like anyone that touches Deus Ex lands somewhere in the industry :D

Modding is a pretty big part of getting into the industry, employers specifically want you to prove to them that you can conform to the industry culture, modding is a great way of doing that. You can begin talking about what its like to work in a team, to work via the internet (Which trust me you do a LOT in this industry) and also how your skills are in a practical sense. (people would rather not just look at your portfolio, they want you to sell the idea of you working for them to them)

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AJ_Quick - - 1,321 comments

Way to glamorize a business where 90% of folk seem to end up working dead end jobs for chump change, or land work with shops that are out of business the next week.

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INtense! Staff
INtense! - - 4,104 comments

I'd like to think this stat is an exception and not the rule. Not everyone works for dead-end job

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formerlyknownasMrCP - - 892 comments

Actually depending on who you are working with it can seem that way.

Also places going out of business is very rare, I've discovered they have greater chances of being transfered over to bigger companies, such as with what EA is doing when talking about IP and TALLENT. :D

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Scurvy_Lobster - - 81 comments

What? Tons of game companies are going out of business these days. AAA production is so costly that many studios break their necks on it. Since most games don't sell the reqiured 1.5 to 2 mio. copies that it takes to regain your 20 mio. dollar investment a lot of layoffs and closings are common. Read Gamasutra.com daily to gain some real life perspective.

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formerlyknownasMrCP - - 892 comments

Perhaps I was referring to indie companies. I haven't really ecountered any AAA quality developers yet aside from EA and THQ, THQ being the only one I've encountered during an actual closure of a studio (which one of their games we were working on at the time). It is really freaky when that happens.

Indies seem to be doing quite well though, as are casual developers which I have more knowledge about. Of course I may be a bit biased towards the Australian industry really - so don't take me for being a reliable source on the matter.

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robin_HOOOD - - 20 comments

nice man you rock

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JangoFett21 - - 107 comments

Awesome interview, well worth the read.

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CrowbarSka - - 297 comments

Very interesting interview here, I look forward to reading more. This is very inspiring!

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Aavenr - - 8 comments

Thanks for the kind words guys! Do feel free to PM me any questions or comments.

As a sidenote, half a dozen guys I collaborated with on the Max Payne single-player mod scene 2001-2006 are now working in the biz. Monolith, Gearbox, Remedy, etc just to name a few. It's all very doable if you are willing to pay your dues.

Angry_Beaver: I love the work you guys are doing. Though the challenge of managing such a large team of volunteers gives me nightmares!

Mr. Kadish: I sympathize with a lot of developers working the long hours because of bad management or planning. Not all places are the same. I can tell you in Europe--and especially Northern Europe--quality of life is taken very seriously and excessive crunch is nowhere near a problem as it tends to be in other places.


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Jokke_r - - 1 comments

Hi Aavenr, long time no see :D:D:D Been busy i see, can't say the same for me though, mostly school and 9 months of army aswell :P (Well atleast i got some real life experience of Assault rifles and explosives :D:D:D), modding has been a bit quiet ATM, looking for an interesting game to mod, got myself a brand new computer aswell thanks to my summerjob i got ATM before i go off to study some more in the fall.

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Aavenr - - 8 comments

Hey buddy, good to see you! If I was you, I'd be all over Crysis and Sandbox! The thought of real time feedback for any scripting you do makes my mind salivate. :)

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DJ-Ready - - 456 comments

I envy you :)
I never really tried hard to become a pro ... now that I'm getting older I start to regret that.

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VertigoSFX - - 39 comments

Awesome interview...it is great to see things from a dev's point of view first hand. And not someone way up there in the ranks such as the lead producer or whatever.

Kudos to stenchy and diego.

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Harimau - - 515 comments

nice interview.

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kinesis916 - - 739 comments

Well that was a cracking interview.

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yafn - - 113 comments

Great interview!

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Whiskeyjack - - 17 comments

well worth the read and well done diego

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aengelius - - 37 comments

Great interview! :)

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[HP] - - 38 comments

Hey buddy!

I have the pleasure of knowing this guy since the old Max Payne days! And what a ride it was until this day...
Man, that seems like ages ago, like you use to say, we were all young and naive!

Nice interview aavenr, congrats and good luck for your future games, you surely deserve it.

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Kasumi Krystal
Kasumi Krystal - - 1,446 comments

Dice is the best with their Mirrors Edge , its really a cool game , but it needs its own editor (and a good PC).

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yone - - 564 comments

Very nice interview, his surname is mine too, and I hope he stills with this employment in DICE.

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