Pre-Interview with Keynote Speaker Manveer Heir

Manveer Heir, Senior Designer at BioWare, will be giving the keynote at Nordic Game Jam 2012. As a warm-up, we managed to get an interview with him here.

Hi Manveer! Can you briefly tell us a bit about your background and how you got into design?

Manveer Heir: I always wanted to work on the creative side of things, since I was a teenager. I decided to learn how to program from books and then went to Virginia Tech to get a Bachelor’s in Computer Science. From there, I worked as a gameplay programmer at Raven Software on Wolfenstein.

Somewhere along the way, we were having a lot of troubles getting that game done, and I found myself regularly going to the creative director and saying “Let’s try this instead” and offering solutions and ways to fix some of the problems we had in the game. Over time, those visits became frequent enough and the ideas, apparently, viable enough that I was asked if I wanted to be a full-time game designer, a role Raven didn’t have at that point. I completed the last year and a half of development on Wolfenstein as a game designer, then became the lead designer on an unannounced game before I left to join BioWare Montréal as a senior designer on Mass Effect 3.

We read some interesting articles about you on Kotaku and Gamasutra, where you talk about how more diversity can help us make better stories in games. How do you see this in relation to the Nordic Game Jam?

MH: I think people can think about non-traditional characters from the outset. By non-traditional, I mean not heterosexual, white men. Think about what a different type of character can do that ties into the theme of what game you are trying to make. Obviously building a deep character is difficult in 48 hours, but hey jammers could even just decide to default to not-white men and leave it there, and that would be a start.

What kind of opportunities do you see in non-risk games developed at the game jams? What kind of experiments can be explored at the game jam, which is hard to do in big game productions?

MH: I mean I think you can try anything in the indie scene and that is what’s exciting. You can try new mechanics, new game genres/styles, new characters, and new art styles for low risk. In fact, I often find many indie games just playing it very safe (and they are usually unsuccessful). To me, the really interesting indie games and the ones that have been successful are the ones that go off the beaten path, not just make another platformer. So I think you can start to try some of the crazy ideas in a game jam and see if there is an inkling of something there. Big game productions don’t let you take that kind of risk due to the money involved.

When you talk about diversities – do you mainly refer to character development or do you see other kinds of diversities that could be interesting for exploring storytelling and game play?

MH: Religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity are all interesting character diversities that could be explored and that is usually what I am talking about. But even thematic and setting diversity can be very interesting. Why has no one made a game set during the civil rights movement in the South of the United States? Why are most our games based in modern war settings or space/fantasy worlds? I think Assassin’s Creed did something interesting by taking you to worlds most gamers hadn’t visited and built a game around exploring those ancient cities.

What do you see as the biggest challenges when creating more diversity in game stories?

MH: I think just having the guts to do it and getting funding if you are a bigger game or just sticking to your guns. People don’t know what they want. If you ask players what they want in a new game, they will tell you all about what their last favorite game had. You have to have foresight to be a leader not a follower. That’s what creating more diversity in game stories is about. It’s about having new, different, interesting experiences. A lot of people loved L.A. Noire last year in part because it was just different. I think that goes a long way. Being well executed also matters, so execution is also a challenge for these games, the same as it is for any game.

Some additional questions – what games are you currently playing?

MH: I just beat Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception which I loved, and am moving on to Batman: Arkham City.

Which character from Mass Effect 3 do you identify yourself with?

MH: Garrus. I think I am loyal like him, but with that ruthless streak you sometimes need to be successful.

Which games or other works of entertainment or art have you found inspiring?

MH: Rome, as a city, is super inspiring. If you visit some of these cities that have been around for thousands of years, the architecture, the history, all of that is inspiring. I find inspiration in sports also – these modern, interesting stories told on fields/courts with seemingly fair rules to both sides. They are sort of amazing. In modern media, like every single game designer I love Blade Runner. That aesthetic has always stuck with me, though I feel too many games do it and I don’t think I’d want to include it in a game just because it’s become standard-issue.

Thanks a bunch! Looking forward to meeting you at the Nordic Game Jam 2012!

MH: You too!

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