Graeme Timmins: Designing 'Aliens: Colonial Marines'

Graeme Timmins started designing mod levels for first-person shooters like Quake, but he didn't think about a career in game development until a Seattle company wanted to recruit him straight out of high school. Now as lead level designer for Gearbox Software, Timmins is parlaying his passion for shooters into titles like Aliens: Colonial Marines.


It was one of the most highly anticipated games of the year. When the Gearbox Software announced they were rebooting the Aliens film franchise into a first-person shooter, fans of both the studio’s previous games and the Ridley Scott/James Cameron films were eager to see the game’s H.R. Giger-inspired aesthetic. When Aliens: Colonial Marines was released this past February, it received harsh criticism for both the gameplay and for looking significantly different than promotional demos presented earlier.

If the game proves anything, it’s that critic opinion isn’t always indicative of sales. Aliens: Colonial Marines debuted at number one in the U.K. and sold more than 1.31 million copies worldwide between February and May. Graeme Timmins, a lead level designer at Gearbox, worked on the game during its last year of development. Coming to Aliens: Colonial Marines after working on other titles like Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood, Borderlands, and Borderlands 2, Timmins chatted with Get In about the challenges of creating a game from an already heralded film franchise and what it takes to work at Gearbox.

Get In Media: You’ve stated in previous interviews that Fox Entertainment supplied you guys with lots of concept art and other reference content from the Aliens films. How does having those kind of things in place affect the design of the game?

Graeme Timmins: Level designers, we like to be inspired by anything we can get our hands on, and to have Fox be gracious enough to give us some of the original environment concept art, it’s like amazing to a level designer to see that because we can understand how to build the environment. As a level designer, you’re putting together many pieces of art to form a space. They’re all separate pieces. To get art from the original set designers, you get an idea of, “OK, this column should be here and next should be made of up three wall pieces and then I put a column again.” It just gives you really great insight on how to build that environment that you saw in the film. When you’re watching it, you don’t necessarily understand how each piece is put together, but when you have that piece of concept art given to you, you have a much clearer vision of how to replicate that because you have the blueprint for it yourself.

GIM: Did the fact that Aliens is a licensed product present any challenges to your design team?

GT: There are certain expectations for what the look and feel of a game is when it’s based on an existing franchise that you have to aim to achieve. … You have expectations of scale for the environment that, as a level designer, you have to achieve given the types of art that were in the film, but also, you have to make the space feel good for a game. Movie franchises and games are experienced differently. One is an active role and the other is a passive role. When you’re in an active world, you want to be able to explore it, but sometimes a movie set isn’t that fun to explore. Level designers are kind of constantly pressed up against making a space that’s enjoyable to play but also achieve the visual look and feel from the film.

"Aliens: Colonial Marines" screenshot

GIM: How can you ensure that something is enjoyable to play?

GT: A lot of it goes by gut. A lot of the guys that make games play games obviously. We’re big gamers at Gearbox. We use our gut first to imagine what we want to achieve and we document that as a starting point and then we build it [and] it goes through tons of iteration. We try one thing, if we don’t like it, we’ll throw it out. We’ll redo sections of levels frequently and we’ll keep iterating on the level until we feel that it’s in a good state to show it. Gearbox has a focus department where we have individuals come and playtest our work. Then we get tons of great data from that department on what players like, what they didn’t like, what kinds of things they’d like to see changed, and then we incorporate that into our iteration to try to make the best possible piece of level design.

GIM: How do you decide how big a level is going to be?

GT: It really depends on the game. Each game that you play, that you work on, has a kind of flow or pace to it and you don’t necessarily know that flow right when you begin. It comes to back to that whole idea of iteration because as you’re starting with a game you don’t have all the pieces up front. As a level designer, you’re working with things as they come online, so you might build half a level without any AI [artificial intelligence] development going on. You have to imagine how enemies are going to use the space. When you actually get that enemy, it might completely change how you think about your space. It might completely change how the pacing of that level is, so in turn it changes how big you envision the level being.

In general, on major projects, we have goals for how long we want the player to play the single-player game or be engaged in whatever form of content. You go in saying, “OK, I’m imagining this level being 20 to 40 minutes long if I get these things.” As you go, you’ll find out if you got all the pieces that you wanted. Did you get all the art? Are you going to get all the enemies that you requested? Are you going to get all the animation?. Depending on how things come together, you’ll start to feel that pace. You’ll start to feel that groove and it’s very easy to find, “Oh man, this level is feeling great” and then it ends. We can probably extend this moment and get more value out of it, or a level can feel like it’s dragging. It’s like, “OK, I’m starting to do repetitive actions too frequently and I’m kind of getting worn out,” so you’ll chop some of that content away to try to find that right amount of time. It’s very different for every project.

"Aliens: Colonial Marines" screenshot

GIM: What was your biggest challenge on Aliens?

GT: It was really taking the film and trying to find the things that players connected with and understanding how to translate that into our medium. That was very difficult.

GIM: How closely did you work with [Aliens game writer] Mikey Neumann on the game?

GT: Pretty closely. He wrote other projects here at Gearbox. He wrote the Brothers in Arms franchise. He wrote Borderlands. I had worked with Mikey before. He’s a writer, so he’s able to look at a story completely different than I do. He thinks about characters and emotion and arc whereas I look at environments and layout and lights. … We had to work together, kind of saying, “These are the kind of environments I care about as a level designer and these are the kinds of things we’d like to see happen there,” and he’d come with, “These are the characters I have in my mind and these are the stories that I want to tell with them.” We’d have to, along with the creative director John Mulkey, the three of us, figure out how we could tell an interesting story that Mikey’s proud of and that also makes sure we have excitement about what environments we’re building. The script went through several iterations, just like any other game, until everyone was happy with what we had. It’s, again, a lot of iteration and just working together with people that have a different perspective but all working towards the same goal.

GIM: What is a good portfolio for a level designer look like? When you’re hiring, what elements are you looking for in portfolios?

GT: I like to see strong design in the sense of the space, have strong silhouette, I can follow the environment with my eyes well. … In terms of what the actual portfolio is, in terms of presentation, it’s important to have lots of screenshots that are large, easy to get at, that highlight the strongest parts of your work. It’s important that, for me, when I’m reviewing people who are applying to come here to Gearbox, I want to quickly see what they’re good at, making sure to take a critical eye of their own work, finding the best stuff that they’re proud of, and giving some great shots that I can get to immediately from their website or, if they’re in a packet of data they’re sending like a zip file, get that stuff easily readable quickly. That’s really important for me. When I get a portfolio that comes by that all the screenshots are small on the website or it’s a busy website and there’s a lot of stuff going on, that is kind of a turnoff. I just want to see what you’re good at clearly and that goes for just about anybody.

In terms of what we’re looking for, in terms of what those screenshots are, what’s your best work? Again, we like to see people that are capable of doing a little bit of everything, whether that’s scripting and taking screenshots of your script, whether that’s text, or if it’s digitally based on a base like on Kismet [visual scripting system]. Those are helpful because that gives us an idea of how clean your scripting is. If you’re more visually oriented, you want to see those great pieces of environment put together and highlight what you’ve done. If you’ve done the lighting yourself, if you’ve done the particle systems, call out the work that you’ve done in each shot. Highlight all those great pieces of your work and then [include] short descriptions of what you did in each of those screenshots that were yours and what your thought process was behind it.

GIM: Aside from a great portfolio, what qualities are you looking for in the hiring process?

GT: Great communication skills. When I was at Central Michigan [University], my minor was in journalism and I’m so thankful that I followed through on that because I learned a lot of communication skills. In game development, you will be working with a group of people everyday. No level is done in a vacuum…

Communication skills are a big deal to me and a lot of people throughout the industry. A great personality. A positive personality. Your work is going to be worked on by other people. There’s a tendency in any creative field [to think that] your work is your work. You have to execute what you see and it’s hard to let other people take it and it’s hard to take criticism. Having a positive attitude that’s open to constructive criticism and then acting on that in a positive way is so critical to what we do. Those two things, having a positive attitude and fantastic communication skills will take you very, very, very far.

Aliens: Colonial Marines is currently available on XBOX, Playstation 3, and Microsoft Windows. Timmins says that future game developers who want to get a taste of Unreal, the game engine licensed by Gearbox, can do so by downloading a free Unreal Developers Kit here

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