[Interview] Dana Jan, Game Director at Ready at Dawn

We sat down with God of War: Ghost of Sparta's game director to talk about his career, the future of Ready at Dawn, the PSP2, Kevin Butler, motion controls, 3D, and, of course, Ready at Dawn's upcoming game.
Author: Parjanya C. Holtz
Published: October 30, 2010
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It was a beautiful, sunny day in downtown San Francisco two weeks ago when we sat down with Dana Jan, the game director of Ready at Dawn's new PSP game, to talk about the studio's second PSP God of War, their initial claims to stop making PSP games, Jan's earlier days at Blizzard, the PSP go, the PSP2, 3D in games and movies, and a potential PS3 game by the award-winning PSP developer, among many other things. Let us know if you make it all the way through this epic, 8,500-word interview.

TotalPlayStation: How did you end up with Ready at Dawn?

Dana Jan: I worked at Blizzard first. That was my first job out of college. I got hired at Blizzard Entertainment to work on World of Warcraft, and so I worked on that for a little over four years. Actually almost four and a half years. I wanted to try doing some other stuff at the company and it just wasn't working out in terms of moving from one project to another within that studio, so I started to look around at what other options I had. I knew Ru [Weerasuriya] already, who was one of the founders of Read At Dawn, and I went and talked to him at E3 actually, to check out what they were working on, and I saw they were working on Daxter for the PSP. I was like, "Oh that's cool." It's a fun game I like Jak and Daxter on the PlayStation [2] and I wouldn't mind working on that. So I moved over there and have been there since then in 2005. Then it progressed from working as an art... I was actually an artist in that game, working on environment art. Modeling the backgrounds and stuff like that for Daxter.

And then I did art and design on God of War: Chains of Olympus. I was also lead level designer on that game and did some of the environment art on that game as well. After that game shipped, because I was so involved with the design of that game, I became the Studio Design Director of Ready At Dawn. And then from there Ru was like, "Well... would you like to direct our next game?" And I said, "Absolutely!"

What I went to school for actually was, I went to University of Arizona and I studied film directing and stuff like that, so it wasn't a huge departure from what I'd studied in school to actually do that. Even though I was studying film in school my hobby, my background, my passion has always been videogames, ever since I was in Junior High. I was talking to Eric [Levine] the other day and I used to work on Wolfenstein levels and Doom on the PC. I used to make my own stuff for that - all the way through Quake 3 Arena. It was just a natural fit - everything coming together to do this.

TPS: What was your job at Blizzard?

DJ: We were designing and modeling and texturing and lighting the cities and the dungeons for the game. You played WoW?

TPS: I never did, but I know quite a bit about it.

DJ: I worked on dungeons like The Dead Mines. I designed that and I modeled it. Cities like Uldaman. The Undercity was another level that I did. It's just kinda all over the place. A lot of the caves and gold mines I did those as well.

TPS: So level design basically?

DJ: Yeah. But level design isn't just, at least on that game at the time I worked there, wasn't just drawing out the maps on paper. We literally modeled everything and lit them and textured them and everything. It was like a hybrid art and design job.

TPS: Chains of Olympus, back when it came out, was one of the best looking games on the system. It pushed it pretty hard. And I'm quite curious about how much more Ghost of Sparta is going to push the system, or in other words, how do you try to trump a game like Chains of Olympus?

DJ: Part of it is technology, right? Obviously making a game look good, run better, faster, etc. - in order to make a game look better you have to add more stuff to it. But you need it to run as fast. It's a combat game so it has a run a high frame rate so it feels fluid and responsive. So to make a game look better, you also have to take into consideration the fact that it's going to cost more performance-wise to run it. So we work with the programmers to figure out what are the key features that we're going to need technology-wise for them to refine and optimize so the game runs faster so we can do more polygons, more textures, more layered textures, better lighting all those kind of things, but still do it on the PSP.

Actually the hardware is pretty strong. It's not like a really powerful machine, but it's also not a very weak machine. Graphics-wise it's pretty powerful. It's more powerful than a DS. I'd say it's on par with the PlayStation 2 probably, in terms of graphic capabilities. It just takes a little bit more ingenuity because you have less memory and stuff to work with to figure out how to make a PS2-looking-game, or even better than PS2-looking-game in this case, work on the PSP.

So programmers, then of course artists they have certain techniques and ways of making these characters look good. Things like his metal being shiny, making water droplets read on screen and do all these things we see on PlayStation 3 and Xbox [360] happen on the PSP. That's tricks and stuff that you have to learn as far as art is concerned. You just have to fiddle with them until they look right. So that's part of it. And designers too. We also have to give and artists and programmers a reason for all that stuff. If a designer goes, "This level is going to take place in a very dark box." That sounds really boring, it gives you no reason to push technology or visuals, right? So we have to, as designers, come up with really interesting scenarios and setups and things that we're going to be seeing or places that we're going to go or interesting layouts of platforming that give you cool views and stuff like that. All that all has to work together in order to get to a "total package" of a product that looks like this. So it's a lot of people working together really carefully.
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