DigiPen Grads Get in on the Future of First-Person Shooters at Respawn
Posted Nov 10, 2016
Titanfall 2, which was released to widespread critical acclaim last month, is a big game from a relatively small studio. Respawn Entertainment, the force behind the sci-fi shooter, has only about 160 employees, which is not a lot for a studio putting out the type of AAA titles that can compete with Call of Duty. It’s also a studio that employs a growing number of DigiPen graduates.
Those graduates include:
Joel Conger (Programmer, Titanfall team)
Justin Cook (Programmer, Titanfall team)
Griffin Dean (Designer, Titanfall team)
Joe Lubertazzi (Programmer, Star Wars team)
Davis Standley (Designer, Titanfall team)
Chin Xiang Chong (Designer, Titanfall team)
Jason Zhu (Designer, Star Wars team)
Why have so many of our graduates ended up there? As it turns out, working on a game for Respawn is a lot like working on student projects at DigiPen, according to the developers we spoke with.
“In several ways, Respawn feels like a really big game team, where everyone just has lots more professional experience,” said Davis Standley (BA in Game Design, 2015), a designer on Titanfall 2. “It’s pretty free-form, and developers are encouraged to take ownership and push their vision.”
“The Company Day at DigiPen is probably the reason so many of us ended up here.”
“[It’s] a bunch of people who are incredibly passionate about games all collaborating towards an end goal,” he said. “Each person contributes in their own way and in turn motivates the others on the team to contribute. It’s a very organic process that emphasizes practicality and getting the most bang for our buck given the time we have to make a AAA game with a team a third of the size [of most major game studios].” As such, he says, it’s similar to DigiPen.
Because of that, DigiPen graduates seem to thrive at Respawn. Game designer Chin Xiang Chong (MS in Computer Science, 2012) and programmer Joel Conger (BS in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation, 2012), who were hired by Respawn in 2012 to work on the original Titanfall, said they were something of a test class.
“I guess we must have worked out well enough that they decided to keep going back year after year for DigiPen Company Days, the career fair, et cetera,” Chin said. That, in turn, led to the next wave of graduates, who all hired on nearly simultaneously.
“A big group of us came over at once” said Davis, referring to fellow classmates Justin Cook (BS in Computer Science in Real-Time Interactive Simulation, 2015), Griffin Dean (BA in Game Design, 2015), and Joe.
Whereas Justin landed an internship at Respawn by applying directly to the company website, the rest of the group first connected with Respawn recruiters during a Company Day event at DigiPen (“Company Days are awesome!” Davis said) and subsequent on-campus interviews.
Justin also cited the Respawn Company Day as a big help for learning more about the studio and the people who work there.
“The Company Day at DigiPen is probably the reason so many of us ended up here,” Justin said. “I think the fact that we are a smaller studio makes it an easier transition for DigiPen grads, but Respawn is all about culture fit. If someone fits the culture here and can add something, we’re more than happy to bring them on.”
For Justin and Davis, Respawn was an obvious fit. Justin was drawn to the studio when he found out it was founded by the creators of Call of Duty 4. Davis, in turn, says he based his job search on the “pie-in-the-sky goal” of working on a big, splashy multiplayer game, preferably one being developed by a small studio.
Titanfall 2 is that to a tee. It’s the sequel, obviously, to Titanfall, Respawn’s popular first offering. The game is set in the midst of a massive sci-fi battle between an evil mega-corporation and freedom-loving space settlers. Gameplay shifts seamlessly back and forth between Pilots and the eponymous Titans. Whereas Pilots are nimble, hyper-fast commandos who cloak, double jump, and run on walls as they move across the battlefield, the Titans they pilot are powerful, slower-moving mechs equipped with heavy weaponry. Despite the difference in pacing and mechanics, gameplay is balanced to feel natural in both modes, and the multilayered combat makes for intense, challenging, and extremely fun gameplay.
“The movement is still my favorite part of the game.”
Titanfall 2 takes that solid foundation and builds on it, adding a fully fleshed-out single player campaign, a robust progression system, new Titan classes, new movement abilities, and more.
Chin, who got to work on the original game’s rodeo ability, which let Pilots jump onto the backs of hostile Titans and attack their weakest points to deal massive damage, said the changes to that dynamic were his favorite updates. In Titanfall 2, Pilots can still board enemy Titans, but now they quickly steal a battery core and depart, leaving the Titan significantly weakened. The stolen cores can then be plugged in to friendly Titans to replenish their health, making a successful rodeo attack a doubly potent move.
“I’m going to be biased about this since I worked on it, but I really like the new rodeo mechanics. I like the increased teamwork opportunities it gives,” said Chin. “It pushes the cat-and-mouse mechanics between Pilot and Titan in an interesting direction.”
Titanfall 2 also gives Pilots the ability to slide on the ground, which gives them momentum and can be chained together with wall runs and jumps to send them bouncing around the map like pinballs. Indeed, the game’s movement has been praised by critics as being among the most fluid and exciting of any major first-person shooter.
“The movement is still my favorite part of the game,” said Justin. “It doesn’t get old and I love to just jump and slide around everywhere.”
Making a modern AAA game, especially one with complex but fluid gameplay, is no easy feat. All the DigiPen graduates we spoke with said that Titanfall 2 put their skills to the test, especially because they were trying to do so much with such a small team.
“Respawn is still a relatively small company compared to many of our peers in the industry,” Chin said. “That means that people tend to wear a lot of hats.”
Joe echoed that idea in giving credit to his education.
“DigiPen taught me to wear many hats as a programmer,” he said. “We had to develop everything from scratch, and as such I had to explore many different areas of game development. At Respawn, virtually all the programmers are generalists, and any one of us could be asked to tackle a problem in a domain space that we haven’t really encountered before.” He specifically cited his physics courses as being key to the project he’s currently working on, a new action-adventure game set in the Star Wars universe.
“On Star Wars it was my lead and myself for the last nine months, alone,” he said. “As such, I found myself covering a wide array and variety of problems. Fortunately, at school I also studied a lot of physics and collision simulation with Dr. Mohrmann, and now I find myself leading those efforts on Star Wars. If DigiPen hadn’t offered those courses and given me a space to practice those fields simply because I found them interesting, there’s no way I would be able to do what I now do on a daily basis.”
“At the end of the day, the whole reason why I'm in games is that I like making people happy.”
Davis, who worked on a few first-person shooter (FPS) games for his student projects, cited some of the more general lessons DigiPen offered him as being the most valuable.
“The time I spent on FPS prototypes at school was great to understand foundational gameplay implementation,” he said. “But honestly I’ve drawn from puzzle projects, or board games, or race games almost as much. The biggest thing I feel the school helped me with was understanding the value of teamwork.”
All that hat-switching and teamwork aside, there’s something a little more fun that all the graduates also got to do on a daily basis — playtest Titanfall 2. Are they excited, now that the game is finished, to play against the general public?
“I hear we only have a few hours before players will pick it up and start walking all over us,” Davis joked. “Can’t wait for someone to beat me at my own game!”
Mostly, the graduates say they’re happy it’s finally out, but not because they’re tired of working on it.
“I’m really excited that people are going to get to see it in full,” Davis said. “It’s a bit bittersweet to see it go, but multiplayer will be supporting the game for a while so it’s not goodbye forever!”
Chin described it another way.
“At the end of the day, the whole reason why I’m in games is that I like making people happy,” he said. “That smile I see gamers have when they are engrossed playing something I helped make is so immensely satisfying, and the only way that actually happens is for us to actually finish and ship a game!”