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Creative Minds: Joe McDonagh

Feature: Life outside the Biosphere...

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There's a lot of passion. I remember Ken and Nate (Wells, the Technical Art Director) shouting at each other about the Splicers' 'morphology'. Passionate debate is the anvil on which great ideas are formed.

Now the industry is maturing do you think there's less creativity and innovation around?

McDonagh: Yes I do. I'm bored out of my brains playing the same games again and again and again. I mean take the new Zelda game. I haven't bothered playing it. Why would I? I've been playing Zelda for years. I hope things change because I can't see myself playing infinite iterations of Dune II and Doom for the rest of my life.

I understand you had an interesting interview with Peter Molyneux and Demis Hassabis to get a job at Lionhead. Could you tell us more about this episode.

McDonagh: I was doing a marketing job in the games industry and to be honest with you, I hated it. Marketing terrible games is soul destroying. I felt like I was selling my peeps down the river by pretending that Mediocre Football was the greatest thing ever. I did something which in retrospect seems totally bonkers. Peter Molyneux was setting up Lionhead so I sent him a letter in a bottle. Literally. I dyed the paper with tea leaves, burnt the edges and wrote it in a calligraphic font. I used the ship wrecked metaphor to describe my situation. It got his attention and he invited me down for an interview to be a Level Designer.

I went down and he and Demis interviewed me. After university I spent a year in sub Arctic Northern Japan and kept sane by designing a Play By Mail Game. I think I had about 100,000 words of documentation and I brought that with me. I also had a board game I'd been designing for fun and we played that. They seemed to like that and in retrospect I can see why. I believe that Game Designers design games. They don't sit around waiting for someone to pay them to do it. Later Demis left Lionhead and invited me to set up Elixir with him as one of the founders. It was an offer I couldn't refuse.

What were the early days at Elixir like and what did you bring to the company in terms of creative input during this time?

McDonagh: It was thrilling. There was a sense that we could do anything and that Republic would be a great game. It was an intoxicating time for us. We won a bunch of game of the show awards at E3 in 2000 and I think we all thought we were on the cusp of gaming greatness. How wrong we were. Republic became a five year death march.

My role was Design Manager which involved trying to corral wayward brilliance into something tangible. I clearly failed. I did the final redesign of Republic. By the time I got to it it was an unintelligible mess of high falutin ideas, lofty ambition and the occasional glimmer of something extraordinary. Myself and a gentlemen called Ade Carless patched it up and gave the team something they could make, albeit mediocre as it was. I've never played it. I'm still staggered that the company ever shipped it. It just didn't look possible.

Republic: The Revolution was an ambitious project. Given the length of time it took to make do you think it was too ambitious?

McDonagh: With the benefit of hindsight, I would say it was laughably so. I remember screaming arguments about whether the citizens would all have dynamic eyeballs or not. The country had to have millions of people in it. It had to have a dynamic weather system. It even had to have a night sky that accurately depicted the sky as you were looking at it from Novistrana's fictional location in the former Soviet Union.

No concessions were made to financial or production realities. Very few of the team had ever shipped a game (myself included). And the concept wasn't mass market enough to justify the millions of pounds we spent on it. As I write this, I'm chuckling because I can't believe we even attempted it. It was unmitigated madness.

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