November 2, 2021

Profile: Retro Interview: Eric Reuter

Sean Green knows what to ask Eric Reuter, level designer for Epic megagames. Reuter lists the projects he’s worked on before, and answers questions about what intrigued him about level design. Green also asks focused design questions that elicit long and well-written responses.

Andrew “Kolinahr” Wu

By Sean Green

Coffee With Eric

Continuing our series of developer interviews, we, very proudly introduce to you all, Mr Eric Reuter, level designer working on Unreal. Our aim is to find out about Eric’s past, and then link that to his experiences with Unreal. A lot can be told about a developers style by looking into their previous endeavours.

Eric, like many great level designers, has been an influencial map creator since the days of Doom. His work speaks for itself, as do the opportunities he’s been offered.

Eric, what do you do over there at Epic?

I’m a level designer, concentrating on the SkyCity series of levels for the registered version of Unreal.

Which projects have you worked on up until now? (personal and profitable) And if possible could you give details on each?

I found it incredible, the first time I plucked a doom editor off the net, that I could craft an actual game level and then play it. It amazed me. I took to this like a largemouth bass to a nightcrawler. I used one of the first editors, DoomEd, and then settled on EdMap. In no time I was experimenting with new things, and began to learn the structure of DOOM and its level construction in great detail. I uploaded one of the very first decent quality levels to the net, and I was hooked. I had always had a flair for things artistic, having had experience with detailed sketching in pencil, to pastels and watercolors. I spent most of the next year creating about 7 or so DOOM pwads, and then made 4 DOOM2 offerings. SAM’S publishing contcated me and asked if they could include several of my levels in their new book, “Tricks of the DOOM Programming Gurus”, and I was flabbergasted. Naturally I accepted. Some time later, they contacted me again, and asked to include my newer DOOM2 stuff, as well as Memento Mori, for which they needed the permission of every designer on the project. This was to be an updated book, “3D Game Alchemy”, and included other editors, utilities and levels for games such as Hexen and Heretic. This was to me one of the most satisfying and proud moments I had ever experienced. It is a truly rewarding thing to have other people appreciate what you do. It felt great. If you scan the credits in these 2 books you will come accross the names of at least a dozen people you will recognize now as level designers of game companies!. DOOM was a portal to new careers. Thanks, id.

In December of (I think 1994 :-) I got an e-mail from Jim Norwood, of the then newly created 3D-Realms, saying that he liked my DOOM2 levels, and “how would you like to work on a real game project!?” That was the beginning of my work on Shadow Warrior. Well, I had to prove myslef first, of course. I signed an NDA, got the Build editor. I took 3 days. About 40 hours. I learned the editor and crafted what Jim called “A production quality map”, in that time. I guess I impressed him. :-)

I was nervous as hell, it was a terrific boost to hear that kind of praise coming from a professional in the industry. I crafted somewhere around 30 to 40 relatively complete maps during the development cycle, gearing the game for ancient Japan. About 8 months before release, all the staff was moved into 3D-Realms to finish the project. I couldn’t go, I have a full time day job. The game took may twists and turns, and ended up as the product you see today. I managed to get about 4 pretty complete maps, in the new “theme”, done to hand off to the newly hired mappers that were now working on the project, and some of what I worked on can be seen throughout the game, in addition to the heavily modified levels I submitted. I wish I could have done more new levels, but things have strange ways of turning, as I have found out over the years. :-) Its fun to look at the game for me, though, because there are numbers of areas of levels and influences of work I had done over the life of the project, that got used by the new guys. Although the game didn’t turn out in the style I would have preferred, I defer to 3D-Realms’ judgement as to what sells.

The most important thing that has happened to me in this industry was to be contcated my Cliff Bleszinski, while I was still working on Shadow Warrior. He had seen my work in DOOM2, and thought I could be of help on this new project Epic was heading up, called “Unreal”. This was back in December of 1995. Epic was gracious enough to allow me to work on their project at the same time I was to finish my work on Shadow Warrior. I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity, Unreal was to be miles ahead of anything I had ever seen, and I wanted to be a part of it. John W. Anderson (Dr. Sleep) was brought on board at the same time, and we became friends almost immediately. He and I both respected each other’s work, and it was a pleasure to work with him at that time. BTW, if Cliff had asked me to quit Shadow Warrior, I would have. This was one game I didn’t want to miss. Thankfully, he never asked me to, and I was allowed to complete my obligation. This is the kind of class act that Epic is. I honored my NDA’s, and Epic trusted me. It was a mistake in hindsight, as my life became an almost unbearable 100+ hours a week, doing 3 jobs, and trying not to become a stranger to my wife and children. Thankfully now, I’m working just on Unreal, and I hope to stay with Epic exclusively for as long as they will have me. Tim, Nigel, Cliff, James, Myscha, Jeremy, Pancho, Mike, Arturo, and all the rest of the Epic staff are probably the classiest, nicest, and most dedicated group of people one could ever wish to be associated with.

At what point did you first take up mapping?

With DOOM. Didn’t everyone?

What intrigued you to begin mapping?

It opened up the potential for me to be creative. That’s it in a nutshell. I didn’t ever anticipate that it would also bring me into the industry.

Myscha, for example, had a background in architecture before he even looked at an editor. Did you have any previous experience before you started or did it all come naturally?

I think that my other activities, talents, and hobbies made doing game levels somewhat of a “natural”. I always enjoyed my drawing and sketching, from the time I was very small. I also have a passion to create incredibly detailed and hand painted / airbrushed miniature fine scale models. Primarily of aircraft, and mostly WWII vintage. You can’t be a schlemeil and make a really good model. :-). It takes like over 100 hours for most, and that’s the kind of patience and attention to artisitic detail and accuracy that level design requires. I had like 5 years of architectural drafting as well, and that couldn’t have hurt.

Do you research your levels before building them? Or do you find that you can create realistic, immersive scenario’s without research?

I think that the process works on a couple of planes. You can’t create realistic, beleivable places without having done some real research, or at the very least, you need to be a keen observer. You also should have a vivid imagination, and be able to construct levels that include new and different things, not always something that must conform to earthly laws of physics. Most of the really good designers are well read, and I think we all do a hefty amount of research. Its a balance. You won’t create immersive levels if you don’t have a good heaping of each going into the mix.

What process do you go through when creating levels, do you do any conceptual work or hand drawings? Or do you build as you go? Which methods do you think work best for you?

A combination. I usually sketch a general idea, or ideas I get as I go. Of course, alot of times I think up something interesting as I go, so I rarely keep to the sketches that closely. The method that works best is when I have a well planned and thought out layout, or at least a good general idea. On the fly rarely works well. My biggest flaw is that I’m incredibly critical of my own work, and I probably throw away some very good stuff that nobody will ever see. I am almost never happy with my work. Weird.

From a proffesional, experienced mappers point of view, how would you compare working with UnrealEd to working with other editors? In what fields does it excel over others?

UnrealEd makes every other editor I have ever tried wholly obsolete. It excels in: Ease of use, learning curve, flexibility, real-time 3D view with lighting!!, the geometric tools, the incredible amount of tweaking sub-tools with wich to manipulate and modify brushes / light / scripts / properties / textures / actors, the layout of the toolbar, the import and export capability, the texture browser built-in and right there for you to pick and choose from, on the fly….shall I go on?? :-)
Its a Tim Sweeney masterpiece.

How has the creative freedom that UnrealEd has given you affected your work?

It allows for me, the designer to have everything at my fingertips, and eliminates or simplifies the usually complex or confusing tasks that most editors require you to learn before you can build anything. It’s design is a creativity “expander”. It’s so robust that we are still discovering things it can do that we didn’t even know before!. The bottom line is that it becomes a true design tool, and lets the level designer concentrate on creating what their imagination can conjure.

Who is your favourite mapper and why?

I will intentionally exclude anyone on the Epic staff for consideration on this question. :-) I couldn’t possibly select anyone on our team without selecting them all.

Other than the great designers we have, I would have to say that I like John W. Anderson’s (DrSleep) work the best. He approches design with the same attitudes I do, and he is meticulous and a perfectionist. Nothing he did ever sucked. :-) I look forward to anything he does with great expectations.

What, in you opinion, makes him the best at what he does?

Attention to detail. He has extremely high standards and always thinks his stuff is “not so hot”, like I always do. Kindred spirits, so to speak. The fact that he is never satisfied with his creations makes the final product truly amazing to behold. ION Storm is fortunate to have him.

What do you feel is the most important part of the map making process? Which area’s do you pay special attention to?

Attention to detail, believability, cool architecture, attention to and a thorough understanding of gameplay. You have to pay special attention to everything. That’s what seperates great levels from good ones.

How would you advise new mappers to be the best they can at their work, and how can they break into the industry?

Take great care and time constructing your levels. Emphasize gameplay over anything else. If you are trying to break in, you need to make your work stand out. Therefore, you have to go one better, and include something that grabs people’s attention. Some new cool architecture, an exceptional puzzle or trick nobody has tried before…something to show your creative abilities. Above all, strive for perfection. One absolutely great level will overshadow a hundred mediocre ones. Showcase this work as your “masterpiece”. John Anderson did “Dante’s Gate” which is probably the best DOOM / DOOMII pwad ever, and it got more downloads than many shareware games. Everybody knew his name after that. One terrific level.

It may help to take the time to create additional levels, with the same attention to detail, depending on what game companies want to see. Often, if they like your level, they’ll ask to see other work. It would be embarrising to say…”Uhhhh…that’s all I have…”. The other thing is to be sure alot of people see your work. Word of mouth is extremely important. Upload your greatest stuff, and only your best work, everyplace you can. Advertise it in usenet, if possible. Solicit game companies and offer to show your stuff. Don’t be shy!.

Closing notes? (shoutouts, ponderings, ideas, philosophies etc..)

I am pondering how I’m going to get all the cool stuff I want to get done in my levels, get them complete and ready in the very short time I have to do it in. :-) I’m going to have to work like a Skaarj Warlord to get everything wrapped up, and still have time to enjoy that Nali Cow T-Bone steak in my freezer.

I do want to offer my sincere thanks to the follwoing people, since I have a chance to do it publicly:

Jim Norwood, Frank Maddin, Scott Miller, George Broussard and Joe Seigler at 3D-Realms, for the opportunity to work on Shadow Warrior. They all treated me great. Thanks guys.

Cliff Bleszinski and Tim Sweeney for taking me on board, I’m greatful. Theresa, Jennie and Billy. My family. Their patience.

T. Elliot Cannon (Myscha) My best friend, confidant, and fellow designer.

Bill Bobos (AKA Core[SDD]) A terrific friend and killer deathmatcher who is currently working like hell to break into the gaming buisness full time. He always finds time to give a call and chat, to see how I’m doin, and to talk gaming, and together with me (aka AssBuster[SDD]) slaughter all comers together in QW at nettally. See ya in December, Bill :-)

To the Unreal Community, the entire IRC gang, The Unreal Nation, Shadows, The Org, BEG, Sumbry, Stonage, Down, Sho, Seany, and all the others:

You guys are absolutely terrific. The Unreal Team and I personally offer our sincere thanks for the incredible class you all display, and the terrific enthusiasm you have for Unreal. You all help to inspire us.

To Phillip Morris, Inc. for Marlboro 100’s., Samuel Adams Brewery, and A&P; for that unbeatable fresh ground 8-0’clock coffee.

A big thanks goes out to Eric for answering our questions, we really hope that his comments may help some of you budding designers to really take the chance to break right into the industry and get the attention you deserve.

Well, that about wraps it up. Once again, we thank Eric for his time, we hope we’ve offered everyone some kind of insight that they didn’t before possess =)

Microphone cover photo by Alex Cole on Unsplash

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