DOWNNEXTBuilding a Bloodier Tomorrow:
An Interview with Blood 2 Lead Designer Jay Wilson

Written by:
David Laprad

Jay Wilson, project leader and Blood's lead game designer, is one of the rags to riches success stories in the 3D game design community. Not too many years ago, he was the humble assistant manager of a movie theater and an aspiring, though unpublished, novelist. Like many of his contemporaries, he downloaded a level editor for an unassuming 3D action game created by id Software, and discovered he had a talent for knocking out alternate realities. Scott Miller, president of 3D Realms, thought so too, and in a momentous Sunday night e-mail offered Wilson employment in level design. It was an abrupt right turn in life, and nine days later, he was using the Build editor to fashion a dark vision of hell.

If you found yourself on your knees, grasping a bloodied paunch and breathing your last breath in "Cradle to the Grave," then you were in the clutches of Wilson. His work on Blood was so successful, he was offered the project leader position for the sequel when Nick Newhard, Senior Game Designer and programmer for Monolith, passed. Selling movie tickets one day, chief butcher the next. Either the gaming industry is incredibly cool, or Wilson has made a pact with Satan.

With that in mind, I asked him with slight trepidation to offer insight on the evil proceedings of the follow-up. I was searching for fresh blood, and, much to my relief, Wilson was pleased to accommodate my request. Be forewarned: Wilson has his finger on your gaming pulse, and a sharpened razor poised above your bulging jugular.

The Good, the Bad, and the Deadly

AVault: What is it like working daily with people who make guns, torture chambers, and blood and guts for a living? How do you maintain your sanity?

Wilson: Via a tenuous thread! Actually it is quite fun, but then I am one of those torture chamber types, so to me it all seems natural. I do get a kick out of telling civilians I make a living by figuring out new and better ways to kill people and blow things up.

AVault: The original game was like punk rock -- gamers either loved or hated it. As you look back, what elements are you most proud of, and is there anything that makes you cringe?

Wilson: Blood is, as far as I am concerned, the fastest, best, and most satisfying deathmatch of any 3D action game. Monolith is filled with hard-core gamers, people who deathmatch in Doom 2 every day and refuse to play a map other than level one because they are still "perfecting their game," and Blood is still the most played multiplayer game around here. I am also proud of my levels. Blood was my first professional product, and all the reviews were very complimentary of the levels, so this was obviously very gratifying. The thing I liked the least was the overall lack of logic and focus. This was due to the fact that we had a very different view of what the game should be than 3D Realms, and we were constantly doing a balancing act of satisfying ourselves and them. Often, 3D Realms would not see the game for months, then we would get an e-mail asking us to completely change a major aspect of the game we had already put a lot of development into. It is not that we were right and they were wrong, we just had different opinions and a difficult time negotiating them. This eventually led to us buying back the rights to the game. Do not get me wrong; I have a great opinion of 3D Realms and their games, but sometimes too many cooks.... I also think Blood was too hard in single player. A challenge is great, but the game did not have any options for beginners, and I think that went a long way towards alienating some people. The difficulty levels in the sequel will have a much greater variation; Hard will certainly be hard, but Easy will be designed for beginning players.

AVault: One of the obvious changes in the sequel is the emphasis on hard-core horror over the campier style of the original. Why this shift?

Wilson: We wanted Blood to be a horror game; that was one of the intentions from the beginning. We all have a pretty sick sense of humor, and with time that creeped its way into the game. Since Build was not the best engine for displaying atmosphere, at least not when held up to Quake, this humor started to fill in where the atmosphere failed. We are all very happy with the end product, but now that we have an engine that can lay down the serious mood, it would seem a shame not to take advantage of it, especially when games like Duke Nukem Forever will provide all the humor players could ever want. No 3D action game has gone the true horror route. There will be a hefty dose of humor in the sequel; however, overall it is a more serious, more terrifying experience.

AVault: At this stage in the evolution of the 3D action game, how do designers scare players? Given the countless titles we have played, are we immune to monsters leaping from shadows, strange noises behind closed doors, and larger-than-life monstrosities?

Wilson: As any good movie director will tell you, it is all about implementation. Sure, plenty of horror films use the old "cat trick" to scare you, but occasionally a movie goes a step beyond and truly taps into something unsettling, and then the viewer knows fear. This is what we want to achieve with Blood 2. A sense of menace in the world is extremely important. The player should not feel that something is going to jump out at them around every corner; it becomes expected, and is no longer frightening. Instead, the player should be fearful of where danger will come from next, and what that danger will be. Are they being hunted at that very moment? Was that creak in the floor from their own foot, or the foot of something much larger that is waiting, just out of sight? The player should never be able to predict what is going to happen next because it kills the fear. One of the biggest problems is players know what to expect before a game ever comes out, so they are never shocked, surprised, or scared when what they have known for months would happen finally does. This is why we are keeping such a tight lid on the levels and creatures of the game. I want people to experience those things, not read about them months ahead of time. Blood 2 will be full of surprises all the way through to ensure players never grow complacent. No, we do not think players are immune to fear, and we intend to prove it.

AVault: What will players find most unsettling?

Wilson: That will be hard to say until the game is finished. I hope they find the Chosen, the playable characters, the most unsettling part of the game once the story comes full circle. Their grim insanity is really the catalyst for the most horrific aspects of the game. I am very proud of what we have done with them as a whole.

AVault: What are the primary gameplay differences between the original and the sequel? Which of these changes are attributable to the new technology?

Wilson: Where to start? One of the most readily apparent differences is the four playable characters. Each one will play differently, and give the story a unique twist. We are still holding back some major details about the Chosen, but suffice to say the player will feel a real investment in their chosen character. Blood 2 also puts a lot more concentration on the single-player game than Blood did, with story-based, goal-oriented levels, advanced AI that emulates real creature behavior, a highly developed storyline with complex and engaging characters, a worthy and recognizable villain in Gideon, a menacing cast of baddies that throw in a lot of twists on what players might have come to expect from a bad guy, and atmosphere so thick you can cut it with a gore-covered knife. This is, of course, just to name a few things. Of course, some changes come as a result of technology. True 3D with mouselook changes the way 3D games play quite a bit, so much so [that] we are actually trying to overcome the technology through gameplay. We want to keep the same feel of the movement and weapon balance, and translate those things into a new style of gameplay. A tricky maneuver, but one I think we are doing well.

AVault: After years working with Build, it must be nice to flex some new technological muscles. What things do you find most liberating about the LithTech Engine, and how are they nourishing the game?

Wilson: Everything is easier. I find myself making engineering requests that would have been near impossible in Build and having my engineers say, "Have it in an hour." Often, stuff that took months of tweaking and finesse in Build comes out the first try. We have been able to transfer some of our Blood code over, mainly for movement and to capture the spirit of some effects. From the level design side of things it was incredibly liberating, at least after that first cognitive leap into 3D design. I spend all my time putting in cool stuff instead of fighting with the engine. Still, I miss Build from time to time. It was a good, fast engine, and level development was faster and in many ways easier, but technology improves, and Build certainly had its day!