Joe McDonagh is the kind of guy who proves that genius is one percent inspiration, 99 percent perspiration. After cutting his teeth at both Lionhead and Elixir he's just completed one of the strangest, most ambitious projects ever conceived with Bioshock at Irrational Games (now renamed 2K Boston). You may have heard of it?
In the second interview in our Creative Minds series, we find out how hard work, board games and tea bags can get you further in the games industry than you'd ever have thought.
Could you describe your role at Irrational and the kind of creative decisions you make.
Joe McDonagh: I'm a senior designer. I'm responsible for a chunk of a game and my only responsibility is to make it fun by hook or by crook. Right now I'm scripting a level using the Unreal III Editor. That means placing enemies in the world and telling them what to do. It's about controlling the pace and the flow of a level. It's about creating interesting and unusual gameplay moments and tying them together in a coherent whole. I also do some writing, although I'm not a writer.
Tell us how Bioshock came about and your specific role in its conception and development.
McDonagh: Bioshock was a long time in the making. Ever since System Shock II the team had talked about everything they wished they'd done differently. Ken spent years pitching the game to publishers but no one was interested, incredible as that seems now. I joined Irrational in December 2004 and my first job was to get a publishing deal for the game (I worked as the Business Development Director for the first six months). I remember pitching the game to one publisher who later told a friend of mine that it was 'just another fucking PC FPS that's going to sell 250,000 units.'
This sort of attitude really pissed me off. System Shock II, for all its critical success, didn't sell very well which turned buyers off. Something I realised very quickly was that as much as your boss won't ever know that you turned down a future game of the year, he will know that you signed up a turkey. You don't get fired for not taking risks. That kind of mentality is driving the industry into a creative cul de sac.
What's it like working at Irrational? We get the impression it's a company not averse to taking creative risks.
McDonagh: It's the best games company I've ever worked at. Irrational's mission statement is to focus on a small number of original games of the highest quality. This involves taking crazy risks (an underwater dystopia based on Ayn Rand? Are you kidding?).
In terms of the nuts-and-bolts of putting a game together at Irrational, how does it work? Does this differ from other companies you've worked for?
McDonagh: Every studio has its own dynamic, but we believe that original games require a lot of iteration and sudden changes of direction. It can be terrifying and ageing at times. But it's impossible to sit down at the start of a project and say this game will be XYZ and it will be fun. Bioshock for instance started out on a tropical island with Nazis.
You have a high level direction, but most of the time you get something working, then realise it's rubbish. You then work away at it until it's fun. Sometimes the best things are total accidents (think about the rocket jump in Quake).
The magic of game design lies in rigorous analysis, careful research and thousands of hours of play testing. Elixir took the same approach; we just weren't very good at it.