Geek Speak: William Ho, game designer at United Front Games
William Ho is helping take kart-racing video games to the next level. He’s a game designer at United Front Games who’s working on the PlayStation 3 version of ModNation Racers, which will be released on May 25.
Born in Edmonton and raised in Calgary, Ho moved to Vancouver in 1996. The 37-year-old held jobs at Radical Entertainment, Black Box Games (which became EA Black Box), and Toronto-based Pseudo Interactive, before joining United Front Games when the studio was founded in 2007.
Ho has worked on games such as Full Auto, Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2, Need for Speed: Most Wanted, and Need for Speed: Underground. On April 10, he’ll speak about video games and user-generated content at Vancouver Film School’s Game Design Expo at the Vancity Theatre.
The Georgia Straight reached Ho at United Front Games’ offices in Yaletown.
What’s the latest news on ModNation Racers?
We’re just about finished the game. We’re down to the last few bugs, and we’re on track for launching the game May 25. What’s been amazing about this game is the reception to the game. Since we announced it at E3 a year ago, the reception’s been universally positive. Our whole mantra of “Play, create, share” has really resonated with people—and that’s through testing, like user testing, internal testing.
As well, we did a couple of public betas, where, I think, we had over a hundred thousand people play it in their own homes, and people have given us so much good feedback. They’ve given us useful feedback as well about the gameplay and about the power and ease of use of the customization in the game. It’s been amazingly supportive—the community around the game—and we can’t wait to get it out.
What’s new and different about playing ModNation Racers?
What’s been great about doing a game sort of from the ground up—with a new team, a new company, a new studio, a new game engine, a new IP—is that we’ve been able to build the game we wanted to from the ground up. The game involves modernizing arcade racing, so taking kind of a classic arcade formula and updating it for a new console like the PS3 with high-definition graphics and real-time physics, and then adding to that a very, very deep customization aspect to it.
So, everything in the game you can customize. You can make your own custom characters, you can make your own custom kart, and then on top of that you can make your own custom tracks as well. All of the features are as powerful as our artists need to be. All of the artists and designers at UFG actually use the game to create their assets. It’s powerful enough for them, but it’s easy enough for anyone to use in their living room.
What’s one piece of knowledge that you’re going to share at the Game Design Expo?
I think the main thrust of my talk will be about making a game that is for the widest possible audience, and the challenges of that, but also the rewards of that. This game was meant for not only hardcore racers, but also casual racers, but also people who don’t like to race at all. It’s for people who like to create and people who like to express themselves and to make things for other people to enjoy.
How is user-generated content changing gaming?
I think now that social-networking sites like Facebook and Flickr, MySpace, they’re so pervasive, and they’re so well integrated into people’s lives that there really are very, very few barriers for people to put their lives out in the world through the Internet. I think it’s about time that games similarly empowered people to do that. So, I think that what was once the domain of the mod community or hackers or people who had to be motivated to learn how to customize their gaming experiences, games have to bring that kind of power to just about anyone out there.
What interests you about how touchscreens are maybe changing gaming?
It’s really interesting what’s going on with new interfaces, like touchscreens and styluses and motion controllers, because that’s just another way to break down those barriers. People don’t have to feel intimidated by, like, a mouse-keyboard set-up, with tons of menus or tons of keyboard shortcuts that they have to learn. Being able to pick up something that’s as natural as a motion controller is very, very intuitive. So, you’ve broken down one barrier right away.
How did you get into video-game development?
It was sort of a childhood dream of mine that I would make racing games. So, when I was a kid, I’d be programming on my Atari 800XL computer. I always loved cars. I always loved racing games. I always played them. I always tried to make them. So, I dreamed of making racing games when I grew up.
However, my life took a turn in high school, actually. An uncle of mine, who was a computer programmer, he actually gave me some advice. He told me like, “Don’t bother with computer programming. Let another geek do it for you.” So, that actually changed my life quite a bit. I actually started studying arts, and I started studying communications, and I was going to go into journalism actually.
Then, as fate would have it, a friend of mine called me up from Vancouver and said, “Hey, would you like to help us make video games?” I’m like, “Sure, why not?” So, that’s how my life kind of took the long way around to the destination. So, now I’m kind of living my dream.
What’s one of your favourite games to play during your off-hours?
Well, I’ve been enjoying a lot of games that have tried to break the mould lately. Games like Heavy Rain—games that sort of shake people out of normal game mechanics and out of what they normally expect. I think there are so many games that kind of repeat the same thing. It’s been nice to see a lot of fresh games come out. You can’t have a game that’s completely new. I think what’s great about Heavy Rain is that company made a game that went part of the way there, with Fahrenheit, but also it plays like a movie. So, it’s like watching a movie, but you happen to be interacting with it. So, I’ve been playing that game a lot. I’ve been trying to figure out how to change the story by making different decisions. I’ve been really into that lately.
I’ve been playing WordCrasher constantly lately on the iPhone. I’m a huge Scrabble fan, and I love spelling games. To combine a super-accessible sort of Tetris-like game with word games is just genius in my mind. I’ve been playing a lot of WordCrasher, and it’s great that it was actually made in Vancouver.
Every Friday, Geek Speak catches up with someone in Vancouver’s technology sector, video-game industry, or social-media scene. Who should we interview next? Tell Stephen Hui on Twitter at twitter.com/stephenhui.