Posted by Ubisoft
If you’ve played recent entries in the Fallout or Elder Scrolls series, then you’ve played some of Joel Burgess’ work. Joel is a 13-year veteran of the game industry who cofounded the level design group at Bethesda Studios, and specializes in open world and level design. Joel also organizes and presents the Level Designer’s Workshop at both GDC San Francisco and GDC China in Shanghai. Recently, he decided to take on a new challenge as world director at Ubisoft Toronto. Next week, he heads south to speak at the Pixelatl 2016 conference in Cuernavaca, Mexico. We caught up with Joel to talk about what he’s been working on at Ubisoft Toronto, and what he’ll be speaking about at Pixelatl.
You joined the Ubisoft Toronto team back in May. Why did you decide to make a change, and what brought you to that studio?
Joel Burgess: I’ve been tremendously lucky in my career to work on some great projects alongside some of the most brilliant and talented developers imaginable. I’ve had the itch to shake things up for a while, though. I’ve wanted to fling myself into a new situation, where I can take on new challenges and be forced to learn and adapt myself as a developer. When I heard about the opportunity here in Toronto, it seemed like the perfect way to both test myself and grow, while still benefitting from my existing skills and experience.
What exactly does a world director do?
JB: If that job title sounds strange to you, don’t worry, it did to me too at first. And to be honest, I’m still in the process of exploring the full scope of the role, which is really exciting for me. More than anything, my title represents an acknowledgement of the important role of building cohesive, interesting worlds to explore in games, and Ubisoft’s commitment to those worlds. Given my personal interest in the same, as well as my background in level design and building big, open-world games, it seemed like a perfect fit.
Can you talk at all about what you are working on right now?
JB: It’s unannounced, so I can’t say – but I can tell you a little bit about my team and experience at Ubisoft Toronto so far. It’s tough and exciting work, which presents me with the kinds of new challenges I was looking for when I decided to make a change in my career. It’s given me the opportunity to work with an extraordinarily talented team that includes developers I’ve respected for some time already, such as Clint Hocking, Liz England and Mathieu Berube, as well as a team full of talented devs I’m just meeting now. I’m adjusting to a new studio, company, country and helping chart the course for how we’re approaching the overall world-building and exploration experience of this new project. It’s already been a wild ride, and I can’t wait until I can say more about what we’re up to.
You’ll be speaking at Pixelatl 2016 next week in Cuernavaca, Mexico. There are a lot of conferences around the world, why was this one interesting to you?
JB: It’s a conference with strong ties to animation and film, which gives myself and other game developers presenting there the chance to share and meet with the Mexican game development and animation communities. Pixelatl comes at an interesting time for me. My short time at Ubisoft Toronto so far has already been a whirlwind of activity, and this trip south is a chance to take some of the ideas I’ve been exploring and look at them through a different lens. The keynote I’m presenting allows me to step outside of my day-to-day work, and revisit the values and priorities I’m bringing to my work on the team.
What will you be presenting there?
JB: The core of my talk is about how we can create narrative through world design. The video game audience is increasingly sophisticated, and demands more convincing and well-realized virtual worlds than ever before. A well-executed setting can provide a strong foundation for authored narrative, as well as providing meaningful context for emergent stories that arise out of the actions of players in the game world. The talk examines the nature of world-building as it applies to video games as well as films, novels, and theater, including examinations of when techniques from other media are both useful and detrimental to games. I’ll touch on the legacy of fictional worlds in media, provide tips for storytelling in games through dialogue and writing, as well as exploring examples of the power of storytelling without the written word, through environmental design, gameplay systems, and scenarios in which players can craft and live their own stories in a fictional setting.
How do you see the future of world-building in video games?
JB: I’ve always believed that video games have unique potential among all art and entertainment media, and we’re still just scratching the surface of that potential. There’s been an explosion in the kinds of creators and games being made in recent years, and something common among many is compelling settings that players want to occupy and explore. Whether we’re talking about an open world or something more constrained, crafting a setting that entices and surprises is something I think we can pay special attention to. I’m just excited to have the opportunity to be part of exploring this aspect of games.