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Interview with Robert “BJA” Hodri, Doom Senior 3D and Environment Artist


Sprony

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Doom turned out to be a well thought out and elegantly designed shooter, with compelling gameplay. As a fan, I wanted to know more. Luckily for us, our very own Robert “BJA” Hodri has worked on the game since 2014. Now that the game is out, I feel very fortunate that I can finally talk to him about it. 

Hello Robert, thank you for doing this interview. I want to congratulate you and the entire team on the success of the game. A lot of people, including yours truly, were very skeptical. But we stand corrected now. How does that feel?

Hello Johnny, thanks for taking the time setting up this interview. It feels amazing to see all the positive reviews and feedback from people playing and enjoying the game. From the first time I saw a bunch of early prototype videos and some character and environment concept art during my interview back in 2013, I always knew it is going to be a great game that's a lot of fun. So it doesn’t come as a surprise to me that everyone is enjoying it so much.

When working on a new title for an established franchise you always need to make sure to stick to what made the game great in the first place and not displease your fanbase too much. The first Doom came out over 20 years ago, there are many gamers that never heard of it or know what it is all about. So you also have to make sure to please a wider audience and not only your hardcore fans. I think we found the right balance. The single player campaign is a lot of fun, multiplayer is fast paced and offers that old school arena shooter feel and SnapMap gives the community endless hours of content and things to do. I think it offers a great package.

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I’ve been following your work for quite some time. You were very active on the now defunct Doom3world.org forums. I enjoyed your Doom 3 maps and I was also very impressed with your Quake 4 scenes. Did those experiences motivate you to apply for a job at id Software?

Thanks for the kind words. Back in the old modding days, when I started getting into 3d and designing levels, you basically had the choice between two engines and editor tools. There was Unreal Tournament and Quake 3. Even though both games were amazing and a lot of fun, I sticked with the Radiant editor for Quake 3. I never really had the intention back then to apply at id or any other video game company. I just enjoyed making levels for Quake 3 and later on Doom 3 and Prey. After some years I moved from designing levels to making environment scenes and getting into 3ds Max and Photoshop and all the tools you need these days as an Environment Artist.

After about five years of making stuff and posting it online in forums, I got a lot of positive feedback and a couple of job offers. That kind of got me thinking that I could turn my hobby into a profession. So I built up an online portfolio with some pretty pictures of stuff I did over the years and once I was done with my studies at the university, I started applying for jobs within Europe and landed my first gig at Crytek in Frankfurt. I was realistic enough back then to know that it’s pretty much impossible to get a working visa in the US without enough experience. That’s why I never considered applying at id Software or any other studio in the states. 

After enough years with professional work experience and shipped titles, I was slowly thinking about moving to the US because I always wanted to work and live there at some point. When I was looking for new job opportunities, I saw that there was an open position at id Software for the new DOOM project. Since I love the Doom franchise and spend a lot of time modding for it, I decided to give it a try and applied. Luckily they liked my art test and after waiting almost a year for my visa, I was fortunate enough to start working there at the end of 2014.

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You worked at Crytek for a long time. Shipping games such as Crysis 2 and 3, Ryse and Warface. Having spend most of your life in Germany, was it difficult to leave everything behind to work abroad on your dream game? How did you cope with that?

I spent quite some time around the Frankfurt area. I studied there and after that, worked there at Crytek. After more than 10 years living there, I decided it was time to go somewhere else and experience living in another country. I always wanted to do that, so that’s why it wasn’t that difficult for me to leave. Of course leaving friends and family is never easy, but nowadays you have so many ways to stay in touch, so it’s not that hard to live far away from each other. Also, wherever you go, you meet new people and friends, which makes things easier.

You didn’t follow any design or art related studies. I assume that the success of your community work caused you to change career paths? 

I always enjoyed playing games but I enjoyed making them even more. Levels for first person shooters mainly, with a strong focus on the visuals. At first I thought I wanted to become a Level Designer, but I realized later on that I like making things look pretty more than designing and blocking out levels. That’s why I focused more on environment scenes for a couple of years to pursue an art related position. 

I still got some emails from people who played some of my older Doom 3 maps, telling me that they enjoyed them. Or sometimes asking me how to start the levels, which is funny and makes me think how much modding for games has changed. Now with tools like SnapMap, you release your levels by just one click. Same goes when you want to play other people’s creations. Just click on an image, that’s it. 

Even though modding for Doom 3 was great, it was a bit trickier to release your levels. You had to create a .pk4 file for all content, include a text file with instructions on where to copy that .pk4 file and what to type in the console to play it. And of course you had to find a website that hosts your map for download. And that’s just for releasing levels. You don’t want to know how much more difficult it was to create them compared to nowadays. Main problem being nothing was properly documented, no tutorials and help files. You would basically look at the main levels from the developers that they included in the editor and try to figure out things on your own. Or ask people in online forums for help, which could sometimes take over a week to figure out simple questions.

Nowadays I think it’s good to have some kind of diploma. You always have to think a little bit ahead in the future, especially when you plan to go overseas at some point. Having some kind of degree is very useful for working visas. 

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You landed your first job at Crytek. Why did you pick them? Also, how did you experience your start in the industry?

I was applying to quite a lot of companies back then when I was looking for my first job. When you’re starting to get your foot in this industry, you’re not picky. You just want to get a job and get work experience. So I was basically applying to bigger companies and smaller ones all over Europe. But if you don’t have any work experience or aren’t local it’s difficult to get a job offer. 

My experience during my first job hunt was something between frustration and weirdness. When you never worked in games before, interviews can be scary because it’s hard to give a correct answer to everything since you’re so nervous. Same thing with phone interviews. I learned really quickly that this industry is changing fast and anything can happen. For example, one company I applied to got back to me within a couple of days, didn’t even want a phone interview and flew me straight to their office for an onsite interview. They locked me in a meeting room and were very cautious that I don’t see much of the office or talked to the employees. After the interview I thought everything went pretty well, so then I was waiting for an answer from them. Didn’t hear anything back, but after a week I coincidentally read on a video game news site that this company had to let go most of their employees. After that I already knew the reason they didn’t get back to me.

I was fortunate to get picked up by Crytek, thanks to Mapcore and some active community members that worked at the office in Frankfurt back then. They forwarded my portfolio to their lead and then everything went pretty fast. I had a phone and very relaxed onsite interview, they showed me the project introduced me to the team and later on had lunch with some members of the team. 

My first year as a professional 3d artist was amazing. Especially if you work together with so many talented people. You learn a lot, you also learn to use a lot more hotkeys and plugins for your software and get much faster. Of course you also spend a lot of your free time in the office, simply because you want to learn as much as possible from others. Or if you’re unlucky you join the company right in the middle of crunch. The positive side of it would be that you don’t have to do a lot of grocery shopping

You joined id Software in 2014. How far along was Doom back then?

I had my interview at the end of 2013. The only thing I saw back then was early animation prototypes for combat, some art benchmark for the Mars terrain and a lot of concept art for environments and characters. I joined late 2014 and it was that year that they showed it at Quakecon. Most of the other levels were blocked out already. Also, most of the weapons were finished and there was quite a big library of textures for environment art already.

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The game was announced back in 2008 as Doom 4. It would be a re-imagination of Doom 2, just as Doom 3 was a re-imagination of the original Doom. It would take place on earth, where you would join the resistance to fight the demons. Bethesda cancelled this version in 2011 because it didn’t feel enough like Doom. Do you know how the reboot affected the team’s drive in creating the version of Doom we’re now playing?

I saw the reaction from Quakecon when they showed the game for the first time. Fans were going crazy and loved everything about it. So yeah, the whole team was extremely excited to work on the game after knowing it was going in the right direction and that people loved it.

You’ve worked on Doom for about two years as an Senior 3D/Environment Artist. What exactly did you work on? 

I worked mostly on hard surface props and environments. I also did basic lighting set ups for the areas I worked on. I did some early blockouts for the cleaner white collar UAC areas. After that I worked mainly on the grittier, industrial environments, buildings and corridors. We didn't have a level art owner hierarchy for this project. A lot of artists were jumping around from level to level, just doing whatever needed to get done. I also worked a bit on the first small area in hell where the player arrives.

Our art team was split up into Environment Artists (World Builders) and Prop Artists. I’m an Environment Artist, that’s why I mainly worked on levels and sometimes when needed helped out with smaller assets. For this project we had specialized people working mainly on hell (organic) props and environments. And other ones working mainly on hard surface props or environments.

I think many people will understand what organic stands for, but for the uninitiated, what does hard surface mean? Can you give us an example?

That’s a good question. Maybe organic wasn’t the best phrase to use since a lot of the areas in hell are very architectural. For me, hard surface is everything that’s kind of mechanical like sci fi corridors, buildings with metal surfaces, etc. And organic, well everything that has terrain, rocks, foliage and so on. Same thing with props. Trees, stones, terrain pieces, I would consider “organic”. But I guess you can interpret it any way you want.

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The level design is fantastic. You’ve got a lot of room to maneuver, the maps are open and feature plenty of verticality. Overall it’s a far cry from Doom 3’s claustrophobic environments. Was this intentional or did it evolve naturally due to the focus on the ‘Push Forward Combat’ mechanic?

Doom 3 was more of an action horror game with focus on scary moments I would say, that’s why it was pretty linear for most parts. In the new DOOM you now have double jump capabilities, ledge grabs and movement is way faster. Enemies coming from everywhere and shooting at you and Imps jumping in your face after opening a door or magically teleporting right behind you. So yeah, that’s why you have a lot more verticality in the levels, it’s simply a lot of fun to jump around and kill demons, especially later on in the game in the hell levels. 

Most of the levels feel like modern interpretations of the maze like old maps. You need to find keycards or skulls, each map is filled with secrets and easter eggs. Plus, every area has a distinct theme and the game uses a varied color palette. Was this agreed upon early as a response to the criticism of Doom 3’s level design?

The main approach for DOOM was to get back to what made the original Doom games so great. Looking for secrets, finding all easter eggs and simply having a bit more freedom to explore a level is fun. 

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You already talked a bit about it, but perhaps you could highlight some of the props and environments you’ve made? You’ve said you worked on the first hell section. Did you need to use concept art or did you have more freedom?

For props I was mainly doing smaller ones like crates, panels, displays, door, mechanical devices, drones, hell pillar modules. Hero assets, weapons or everything that would require a lot of time would go to a prop artist or specialized person. But modules were mainly done by the environment art team. For environments I worked on the interior and exterior of the resource ops building in the first level. I also worked on tech and server areas leading to the Vega core in the second level. And more building facades and corridors for other levels. Normally we always get concepts or quick over paints for everything, from smaller props to bigger environments. That helps a lot, even though you don’t always stick exactly to a concept it gets you going without having to think about an area too much. The idea is to get a concept and try to improve on it, at least that’s something I always try to do. Of course it’s different when you’re working on weapons or characters, there you better be sure not to deviate too much from the concept. You have a bit more freedom when it comes to environments. At least when I compare my final scenes with the concepts, the main shapes are still recognizable but for most of the detailing I try to come up with my own ideas.

Doom took a big risk by focusing purely on the combat. There are actually a lot of additional layers such as the upgrade system, Doom Guy’s personality or the subtle storytelling. But nothing never gets in the way of your momentum. Was the team worried about how the fans would react or were you confident that this was the way to go?

I have the feeling players are sometimes afraid of new features when it comes to their favorite game. They basically want the next game to be the same thing just with improved graphics it seems. You have to go with the time, first person shooters have evolved over the last 20 years. Of course, things like shooting red barrels that cover ninety percent of your screen with an explosion while blowing away everything in the damage radius is fun. That never gets old. But then you have new features like player progression, updates, perks, weapon customization that you didn’t have in older games. I think those things also add a lot of fun and motivate the player, so why not use it?

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What challenges did the team face during development? What went well and what improvements did you have to make in your workflow as time went on?

Making a game while developing new tech for it is always challenging. We switched over to a PBR renderer, so the way people used to texture changed drastically. Also new tools had to be developed. A new lighting pipeline had to be established. New artist had to get trained in Modo, the new tech and specific workflows here. I think it took me a good month to get familiar to all the new software tools.

Before finishing this interview, I have to know what's up with all those candles? Is there any backstory to them? Do the demons have candle factories and a proper candle distribution infrastructure to meet their needs?

Well, there’s a satanic cult worshiping Satan I would say. Or maybe demons are afraid of the dark and placed them? Who knows.

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I want to thank you Robert “BJA” Hodri for doing this interview with me. I'm sure the community will appreciate the insight. I'm very excited to see what's next for you and the team at id Software and I wish you all the best of luck. Oh, please try to convince them to do singeplayer DLC for Doom :)


'RZL, Sigma, Radu and 22 others like this
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Interesting interview, thanks @sprony and @bja for bringing it to us. Also Robert congrats for your career development :) also motivational to read I'd say

Edited by blackdog

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