Odyssey of Design: Interview with Derek Prate

Derek Prate is a professor of game development at Chapman University and a former game designer at JumpStart. He’s worked on such games as School of Dragons and NFL Rush: Heroes & Rivals. Growing up and unable to find his place, video games were the one anchor he relied on, and they eventually became his saving grace. I sat down with him to discuss his journey, from how he went from being a lost teenager to following his dream as a game designer, and to inspire other students to do the same.

Lee Feldman: So, how did you initially get into game design?

Derek Prate: I grew up playing games. I love playing games. I never stopped playing games, so as a teenager, I started modding games, and I guess as I started to work in the adult world – I don’t know what else to call it – but when I turned 18 and moved up to the real world, I didn’t want to go to college, so I worked a lot of weird jobs. I worked at a chicken factory, I worked at an asphalt plant, and just realized that I hated what I was doing and I didn’t like my life, and I loved video games and that’s what I should be doing. I’ve worked on video games in my spare time, it only made sense to work on video games. I guess I was miserable, I wanted to go to college after I missed my opportunity because I was too bold, so I found Full Sail University online because there wasn’t really anything available where I was at, and I started going through one-by-one, class-by-class, and really just loved it and chased it all the way here.

LF: What was a game that was influential on you growing up?

DP: I’d would say…I can’t remember if it was Super Mario Bros. 3? But the one with the frog suit and the raccoon suit…

LF: Yeah, that was Mario 3.

DP: That game, to me, is the epitome of happiness in my childhood. It sounds weird, but I played that game a lot and my parents went downhill and everything after that, so I think I refer to that point in time as a time of happiness and Mario. I played a billion Mario games after that, Mario was just like a flagship franchise after that.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is the third-best selling game for the NES and considered one of the greatest games of all time.

LF: Nostalgia is a definite reason to enjoy games. But was it just the nostalgia?

DP: I like how things work, I like to know how they work and manipulate them, and I think the ability to have the control, instead of playing, but the ability to set it up and almost play with it in pieces, like a board game, that in itself is a lot of fun for me. I enjoy that challenge. I enjoy the challenge of getting into your head and trying to funnel you into certain ways and make you do things. And I also enjoy the fact of, “Here’s an open room, here are your tools. What will you do with that?” That’s one of the reasons I got into teaching. I don’t feel like I’m the most creative person, but I knew being around other people and seeing what they do, that would only drive me and inspire me, on top of the opportunity to learn from everyone else. Like I said, I think of games as almost playing god, so it’s very cool to just see other people’s input and how they think about and do things, their skill sets.

LF: We’ve had this discussion before, where I’ve passionately defended Castlevania as, in my opinion, the best designed game ever made. What do you think is the best designed game, if you had to objectively pick one?

DP: Super Mario Bros. Purely because of level 1-1. I can look at that level from the side and absolutely understand what that designer was doing, what exactly he was trying to teach you, how he did it. I think you can teach an entire program about that game. Now, I don’t know how well it crosses over thirty years later, but I think the same concepts apply. It’s wonderfully laid-out in just about every aspect.

LF: In more recent years, there’s been discussion about how games have been designed to be much easier. Older games, like Super Mario Bros., teach you nothing and allow you to figure out how the controls and mechanics work at your own pace, whereas modern games have tutorials and controller maps. What are your feelings on that shift?

DP: If I want somebody to be able to do something, I need to show them how to do it, and I think as games grew, the different ways you could play grew, so you had to start teaching every way. This is not a science or an art, it’s somewhere in between. If you’re doing something new, you have to teach people something new. I’ve said this about shooters before: there’s a reason you can pick up Call of Duty or Battlefield and just play it right away. At the end of the day, once you strip everything away, it’s pretty much the same game, the same controls, the same buttons. The difference is when they started introducing new games, and especially with indies now, since the software has caught up, a lot more people can make games now. You can have a lot of different experiences, whereas you used to have people making special games on specialized machines. With the indie explosion, you have so many more ideas, so many out-of-the-box concepts, you have to teach people how to do things. Tutorials are great and fantastic, but not needed for some games. Other games absolutely need them, like Portal.

Portal, released in 2007, forced players to use a special gun to create portals and teleport the player and objects in order to solve puzzles.

LF: You mentioned you did modding when you were younger. Tell me about that experience.

DP: There’s a game called Ultima Online, and that game had a really crappy off-shoot of a modding scene. Somebody had went so far as to break down code into Wordpad, so it would read code out of Wordpad. So I would go in and manipulate items and change the colors horses and swords, and how much damage they did, and their names. It just unlocked programming for me. It turned programming from a weird, jumbled mess, where I, as a 10-year old, could not understand, to Wordpad, where I can just read, and it changed the ball game for me. I spent time with that engine, I made so many single-player experiences – and it was an MMO, which was funny – but I just made games for myself. I used it as an editor for games in general. Whatever world I wanted to create, I would create it within that engine. Eventually, that stopped getting supported and I got really burned up playing by myself, so I started making Neverwinter Nights mods, and their toolset was the first real level editor I got into. It just had fantastic tools, and because Ultima was a 2D game, I finally got to move into 3D space, which was awesome. I think from there, I played the next Neverwinter Nights, which had an awesome, powerful editor, and then after that point, I started to branch out from that point into RPG Maker. I got into that on both the PC and the PS2 – which was the far worse version, by the way – and I just loved those. I made many terrible 2D games.

LF: Neverwinter Nights’ mod tool is definitely the hardest modding tool I’ve ever messed around with. You have so much control, but you have to understand C.

DP: It takes a lot of time. That’s another thing, I didn’t know C, so I ended up taking a lot of people’s snippets and frankensteining things together with mixed results. I think, unfortunately, I learned through a lot of bad modding that the best thing I could do was get a baseline, foundation education on this. That way, you can build on something other than this broken knowledge of this and that.

Widely considered an industry standard, the Neverwinter Nights 2 Toolset is nonetheless complicated and deep.

LF: You went to Full Sail for college, but you missed your opportunity initially. Would you mind talking about that experience?

DP: I would use the quote of, “Old too fast, smart too slow,” definitely applied to Derek as a teenager. I hated school. I thought it was a giant waste of time that I spent eight hours a day doing that and not getting paid – which was a really ass-backwards way to look at the world. So once I turned 18 and I could go out into the world, get a job, and get paid for those eight hours, that was my thought, that, “Okay, let’s just do that. You’ll move up wherever you go.” But the reality of the area I grew up in was a lot of labor. I grew up in a 300-person town in Wisconsin, the nearest neighboring town had 10,000 people. There were no game industry jobs. In Madison, the closest hub to me, which was an hour away from where I lived, they have one major studio I know of. That’s it. If you don’t have any experience in this industry, you can’t get a job in California, let alone trying to get hired in Wisconsin. I had no clue what I was doing. College was an opportunity to get into something before I felt like I was too old to go to school, and that was a big reason I chose to do Full Sail, because I could get my degree in under three years. It was 32 months straight of classes, and once I was done, I was done.

LF: When you were at Full Sail, why did you ultimately focus on game design, as opposed to, say, writing or programming?

DP: Interestingly enough, the program I was in was a game design program, so I was going to end up with a game design degree no matter what I did, but they gave us opportunities to do art in some classes and story in some classes. I think what really got me so knee-deep in design was understanding how people make games behind the curtain and how they made them magical to you under the hood. When you play games, you think of them one way. It’s an experience that brings up certain types of emotions. But when you make them, it’s something totally different. Instead of opening the present on Christmas Day, it’s being the one who picks it out, wraps it, puts it under the tree, and determines when the kid finds it. Or putting it in a bigger box to mess with them. That’s how I think of design, and once I got into the industry at JumpStart, I started talking to people and realized that people didn’t really know design. It’s very abstract. I think of design as where art meets science. Art is a vision, whereas science is how something works. What I think is awesome about game design is that it’s the intersection where the two meet and, as the designer, you control that. It’s your job not to project your vision onto everyone else, but to bring everything together so it’s the best experience possible, which is the most exciting aspect to me.

LF: After college, you began to work for JumpStart?

DP: I had two brothers who were also working in the game industry, one was living in Wisconsin and the other was in California working at JumpStart, so I took the opportunity and told him, “I’m a year away from finishing my degree, and this is what I want to do. Could I come stay with you and possibly do this?” I got an opportunity to talk with the lead producer and explain to her what I was doing, and I got called back three days later for an internship. I took it and ran. They were concerned that I was in school and how that would affect my working hours, but that was the only concern.

LF: Overall, how was your experience interning for them?

DP: It was very interesting. Eye-opening, really, as to the amount of effort that goes into video games and the type of dedication some people have to live at the studio, like spend their nights there, sleep in a spare room, wake up, and do it all over again. A lot of that time was unpaid. That was just crazy to me. On top of that, there were a lot of cool things, like Happy Hours every Thursday, where we shut down about four o’clock and get some drinks with the CEO or someone in the art department. You could talk to everyone, no one was untouchable. It gave you the opportunity to learn about other areas of games because it wasn’t such a corporate structure.

JumpStart is a company that primarily makes educational games. Their most popular franchises include School of Dragons and Neopets.

LF: What was the most rewarding experience you had while working at JumpStart? And what was the most challenging experience?

DP: The most rewarding experience was having kids come in to play-test and not want to leave. To have a child come in, play your game, to not want to put the tablet down, to keep asking questions to do more with it…it was really cool to see that excitement get sparked in someone else, the same type of excitement I had as a kid. The most difficult part, on the other hand, was working on creative content but not having enough creative control. Because we worked so quickly, we couldn’t really realize our visions all the way, which was difficult. My old producer put it best: games are never finished, they just ship.

LF: What made you want to shift from designing games to teaching game design?

DP: This circles back to what I said about when I began working at JumpStart. People don’t know design that well, and it’s crazy to me because you do know it. Everybody knows it. If you play video games and you’re really into games, you know design, you’ve just never thought about it from the other end. You may not know the technical terms or how it’s necessarily creating that experience, but you play through the experience, know what it’s doing, and can identify what’s good versus what’s bad. I think it was an epiphany to me to play games, get through them, learn about design, and see what they’re really doing, and I want to share that with people because I think it’s super cool. On top of that, I married a teacher and had children with a teacher, so it made sense for me to be in teaching, too. It’s very conducive to a family. I also don’t feel like the most creative person. I’m technical, I try to know my things, I try to be thorough, and I tend to be rigid, but the biggest, most-exciting thing for me is coming into class and seeing what you guys have done. I don’t learn anything when I talk, but I learn when you talk.

LF: What’s the one thing you ultimately want to take away from teaching?

DP: I absolutely want to see my students grow. I came here because I want to help people, and I know that sounds really broad and self-righteous, but it’s more about me wanting to help them appreciate what I appreciate. I do believe in games, I’ve seen the educational end of games, I’ve seen the light bulb pop up in kids’ heads from a video game. I think games are incredibly powerful and not normally looked at that way, but hey should be and we should be using them that way, as well as providing just leisure experience. I think there is so much potential here with an unlimited digital space, where we can do so much. We’re almost like explorers in this new territory. I think it’s exciting from that aspect.

LF: Anything else you would like to add?

DP: Just that I like games. This just makes sense to me. It’s a weird zen to be here, but I think I can appreciate it because of where I’ve been.

Written by Lee Feldman

Lee is a writer, game designer, and graduate student from Los Angeles, California. As a gamer, he is primarily inspired by fascinating worlds with deep stories, rich characters, and sharp gameplay, with a love of games both old and new. When he isn't collecting rare NES cartridges, he can be found obsessing over mixed martial arts.

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