Interview: David Johnston

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DAVID JOHNSTON
– interview by eric huntington

Please don’t play Counter-Strike. I don’t want anyone else to play, because it’s just more people for me to kill. I’m trying to ween myself off for the last, oh, two years, but like a sick, twisted drug, it keeps pulling me back in. Bastards.

I got a hold of David Johnston, part time mapper (map = level, mapper = map creator. leveler = mapper?), part time UK resident, to find out what he’s up to.

David, Explain how you got involved in the computer game world.
Well, I’ve been with computers since I was very young (2 or 3 years old) – my Dad was in the tech industry, so he often brought home the latest computers, most of which I can’t remember, and did some programming, mostly as a hobby. I was fascinated, and kept the trend, playing all manner of 2D games through into high-school. It was my favorite form of entertainment.

So is there some shareware floating around that includes some of your early work?
Nope, the first ‘real’ work I did was the Dust Map (for counter-strike), and that didn’t become ‘real’ work until it was bought off me, totally by surprise.

What’s your current game-industry involvement?
Since I’m currently doing a degree at University, I don’t get much time to map apart from during the summer when I’m at home. Last summer I worked on level design for James Bond 007 Nightfire, this summer I had a non-game related programming job. It’s good to take a good 12-month break from it all; it really helps provide inspiration and creativity.

Future?
Half Life 2 (HL2) and Counter-Strike 2 are all I care about right now. I’ve actually lost sleep over them in anticipation – not just over the story and technology, but the sheer power they give me as a designer. It means that I can spend time on creating what I want to create rather than trying to dodge around limitations of the game engine.

HL2 does look insane. Have you been able to get your hands on some of the new modding tools?
Not yet, which I actually prefer, because then I can play the game as a game rather than playing it as a developer. I prefer to play games not knowing how they’re made, then work it out afterwards (it’s like magic – the trick isn’t so impressive if you know how it’s done)

de_dust is one of the most popular maps in the Counter-Strike world. Explain it’s creation, the thought behind it, and how long it took to make?
The creation was based on some Team Fortress 2 media that Valve Software released a few months before. Back then, TF2 was all I cared about. There were a few screenshots that really caught my attention – they showed what seemed to be a golden, dusty desert, with buildings and structures scattered around. They had me dribbling in excitement. At that time I was looking for ideas, and nabbed what I saw in the screenshots. Some areas in Dust are actually taken straight from them, and the theme is a complete rip. I still don’t know who made the original! All in all, it took only a couple of weeks to get the basic layout done, and a few extra to get it polished enough for release.

de_dust Counter Strike Map

de_dust Counter Strike Map

Why the hell are there so many crates in Dust, and in the Counter-Strike world, anyways?
Crates are just so flexible! I think it stems a lot from the fact that you can put a crate of some sort anywhere and it won’t look out of place. No other item can blend in to so many environments and change the gameplay so much. For a shape with 6 sides, crates are quite amazing in their power. All hail crates. Actually, I held an online competition once to find the best crate alternative. The winning entry was a crate wearing a pair of comedy glasses (with the nose and moustache).

Recently, Valve has publicly introduced Steam, a broadband content delivery system, to the world. Thoughts on Steam?
I think it could be revolutionary, but it depends on the users. It certainly makes some things logistically easier – releasing updates for example. How it’ll fare as a platform to purchase games I’m not sure, but I trust Valve and I’m sure they know what they’re doing.

What would be your recommended, best way to get introduced/involved in the gaming industry?
If you speak to level designers and programmers and artists in the industry and you’ll hear the same story time and time again – they got into game design as a hobby and were eventually hired on the skill and commitment they showed. This is also the reason why you’ll find such a variety of different skills amongst those in the gaming industry – many have degrees and experience in things that are totally unrelated to game design. These days, the most popular and accepted way to get the foot in the door is to work on a free modification for your favourite game – and work your ass off for it. Spend all the time you can on it. Show your skill, thought and commitment. If you have ‘it’, ‘they’ will find you.

What do you think is the best aspect of the gaming community?
I’m not sure what I’d pick as the “best” aspect, but I find the most amazing aspect is the size and variety – it’s truly international. It almost has its own language and terms! Actually, it’s one of those things anyone can get involved in. It’s something many people are involved in without realising.

Worst?
The few that take it so seriously they damage it for themselves or others. It’s shocking to think people have died from playing Counter-Strike far too much. Some people just lose the plot. But the massive majority of players are fantastic. It’s amazing fun.

Why did Daikatana suck so badly?
I only played the demo briefly, and I didn’t find it too bad. It has unfortunate, obvious flaws, but I think the most damaging was the huge amount of media released years before it actually came out.

What are your thoughts on Battlefield: 1942?
I haven’t played it personally, but I’ve looked over shoulders and it looks great. I’m always a fan of huge, open terrain so maybe I should give it a go sometime!

CS weapon of choice:
Before 1.6, the Scout sniper rifle. Now, with 1.6 available, I love the FAMAS.

Scout whore! Are you a fan of the new Riot Shield?
Not sure yet, it certainly changes gameplay a bit. I’ve had my fun moments with it, but also some great aggrevation caused by it. The game mechanics are now much more interesting.

Linux distro of choice:
At the moment (a few minutes ago in fact) I’ve playing with Freepia, a version of Freevo (a TiVo clone) designed for low-power Epia Mini-ITX boards made by VIA.

Nice. I currently take advantage of Soundforge’s community for expanding the multimedia options of my Xbox. Speaking of which, are you a fan of that console and console modifications in general? Any modded boxes in the Johnston household?
Yeah, my little brother has an Xbox. I do enjoy motoring around in Sega GT, but I can’t say I do more than that on it. I would like to mod it, but I can’t without invalidating the warranty.

Preferred gaming system:
I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Atari ST, so that gets my vote… where’s Sam Tramiel these days? It’s a great feeling loading up my old favourites on an emulator and seeing how much I can remember, like Buggy Boy, etc.

Current computer setup:
Abit BD7-II, P4 2.26, 512MB, 80GB 8MB cache, Ti4400, 17″ Iiyama monitor with a Globalwin 802 case. Paid for by the very kind people at EA Games when I started work on Nightfire at the beginning of last summer. It does the job and I wish I had the time to mod it more!

Current musical inspiration:
Most recent, Rob Dougan. Of all time, Groove Armada, Fatboy Slim, Badly Drawn Boy… fellow Brits.

Current videogame:
Team Fortress Classic. Got back into it recently, and it’s so much fun.

Best programmer out there:
As a progammer myself, it’s hard to choose; I see so much God-like talent everywhere. In a months time though, when Half-Life 2 comes out, Mike Dussault (and the entire Valve Software ‘Source’ engine team) will awe me.