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Building Worlds
Since early 2006 Josh Kurtz has been working as Lead World Builder for the upcoming Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game Stargate Worlds, believed to be released some time in 2008. He recently sat down with GateWorld to discuss the project in broad strokes, and tell us about the intricacies involved in producing a game its size.

Josh has previously worked in the film, music and photography industries, and has shipped such game titles as Diablo II and World of Warcraft, the most popular MMO title of all time. He fills us in on the week-to-week obligations of his job, and the responsibilities of bringing together a world-class team capable of making it happen!

GateWorld's interview with Josh Kurtz runs 23 minutes. The video requires QuickTime 7.0 or higher. Can't play the file? It's also transcribed below!

GateWorld: For, I am David Read, and I am here at Cheyenne Mountain Entertainment, like every other day. Except this particular day I'm with Mr. Josh Kurtz, World Builder for Stargate Worlds. Josh, welcome, thank you!

Josh Kurtz: Hi, David. How're you doing?

GW: I'm pretty dang good, sir. And yourself?

JK: I'm doing alright. It's a good day.

GW: It is a good day. It's a Friday!

JK: It is!

GW: Overall, what does your job involve?

JK: I'm the Lead World Builder for the Stargate Worlds project. Basically it encompasses a number of things. At the very highest level what it covers is managing the tasks on the world-building team and managing the people on the world-building team. Making sure everyone has their tasks and what they're doing; has everything they need, all the tools and all the things they need, and making sure all the different tasks get done, all the different jobs, all the worlds get built. We get the designs done for them. I take ownership of a lot of those high-end world decisions.

GW: Now when we're taking worlds we're meaning environments and characters within those environments.

JK: Yeah, it kind of covers everything. "World" is more than just a space that you play in. But it does encompass the spaces you play in. It's the environments that characters interact with and adventure within and play around in and move through. But it also involves the [non-player characters] that people interact with, the monsters people attack or the Jaffa or the Asgard that people encounter. All of those things have to be placed, and my team handles placing those things and making sure they work and interact right, all that.

GW: OK. Tell us about your background in the gaming industry.

JK: The gaming industry?

GW: The gaming industry.

JK: [Laughter] I've been in so many industries. I started [in] 2000 at Blizzard Entertainment.

GW: Ah, Warcraft.

JK: Actually I started as [Quality Assurance] on Diablo II. I started as an analyst on Diablo II and worked with them on that project pretty much until its completion. And then I moved up to a senior position in the Q.A. A lead tester. Then I moved up from there very quickly. I was only there for a couple of months before I moved up to World Builder for World of Warcraft.

GW: OK. So the initial World of Warcraft release, you were a part of that?

Kurtz has helped bring titles like Diablo II and World of Warcraft to life.
JK: Oh yeah. Myself and three others from Q.A. and support moved up into the level design, world building positions. At the time there were, maybe, 12 other people on the team. It was very small. You could fit the entire team into a single, small conference room. We used to have birthdays, get taken out to Hard Rock Café and make the guy whose birthday it was stand on a chair while we all sang to him. It was kind of fun.

GW: Did you guys have any idea how successful that game would be?

JK: No. We all knew that it was fun. We all played it. Even as early as Alpha we all played it and we enjoyed it, but there's always the question sitting in the back of your mind: "Is this game going to work? Are we going to do as well as Everquest? Are we going to do as well as Mu or Lineage II or Lineage I?" Or whatever. There's always that question. Is what we're doing what people really want to play?

GW: The game may be perfect, and may function really well and may be fun, but will people pick up on it?

JK: Well, yeah. We could sit there and play this thing all day and love it, and it goes out the door and maybe a hundred other people love it. That would suck. Yeah, it turns out that it was a great game and a lot of people really enjoy it.

GW: This project, though, Stargate, is coming out a lot faster than WoW was.

JK: Yes it is.

GW: Is Worlds bigger than World of Warcraft in terms of what you've got to produce in order to get it to come out?

JK: Are you talking land space?

GW: I'm talking everything. You guys took, what, four years? Five? Six? Seven?

JK: Close to five.

GW: Five years, and we're compressing that time down to three?

JK: Yeah, about that.

GW: What I'm getting at, is this possible for the staff that we have?

JK: I think it is. Obviously, my team, I'm still looking for more people. With the staff we currently have, I'm a little off my schedule, but I'm looking to fill a couple of those slots, and then based on the schedule that myself and the production team have put together, I think we're on schedule to get it done. I'm not worried or stressed about it.

GW: How familiar were you with Stargate before coming aboard?

JK: Oh, big fan. Oh yeah. I went and saw the first movie in theaters probably three or four times, and then when it came out on VHS I bought it. And then it was one of the first movies I bought on DVD. I didn't actually watch it, to begin with, as a series, because I didn't have -- was it HBO that it was on?

GW: Showtime.

JK: Showtime. I didn't have Showtime. I had Cinemax and HBO but no Showtime. So I didn't get into it until it moved to network TV. Then I started watching it. Then they started showing back episodes and I started watching those. And SCI FI Channel picked it up and I've been watching it ever since. And then I get a TiVo and it made it a lot easier.

GW: Do you continue to watch the show more as a fan or more because you have to watch it?

JK: I watch it as a fan. I don't do as well with watching something because I have to. It tends to attract the analytical part of my mind. "Oh, I have to watch this. There must be something interesting that I can see." But it loses the creative, passionate part of my mind. So the fact that I was fan to begin with really helped.

GW: Why is this franchise compatible for a Multiplayer Online Role-playing game?

JK: I think there's a number of reasons. I think one of the most obvious ones is that if you watch Stargate, the entire series is a group of four people who get together. They saddle up side-by-side and they walk through that gate to another world to accomplish some kind of adventure, we watch it on TV, and then they come home. That encompasses a couple of things that are huge in MMOs. The first one is the group.

Every MMO out there has some form of grouping. Some of them only have grouping. That really is part of SG-1. The series and all of Stargate, is that small, knit group that gets together and goes though this gate to [face] unknown things, has to depend on one another, and stand up for one another. I think it ties in really nicely.

And the other thing is that when you turn on the show, at the beginning of the show, they go through the gate, they go to another world, they have all kinds of adventures, at the end of the show they come back and they're home. That's usually the case. At least early on it was. And that's also very similar to MMOs in many ways. You and your buddies log online, you go out, you do all kinds of adventures, have all kinds of fun, finish quests, missions, kill monsters, get fat loot, and then come home at the end of the day, log off and go to bed.

The Stargate landscape fits well for an MMO: Go through the gate, get "fat loot," and come home.
So it is very similar. And it's also, if you look at SG-1 as an entire series, they're always on this quest for gear. It's always to get the technology to protect themselves from the Goa'uld, and then the technology to protect themselves from the Replicators, and then the technology to protect themselves from the Ori. It's like, "Well here's your Tier One gear, your Tear Two gear." Whatever you want to talk about.

It's kind of funny. I don't think it's all that intentional as a correlation, but I'm amused every time I think about it. Sam Carter, Jack O'Neill, Daniel Jackson and Teal'c going through the gate to get fat loot so they can protect themselves from the Ori or whatever.

GW: So it's really compatible then.

JK: [Laughter] I think so!

GW: Alright. Is there anything unique about working on this particular project compared to the ones you've done before?

JK: There's always lots unique. When you move to a new project it's usually at a different company. The entire way the company does things is different. All of the people you're working with are completely different. People have opinions and thoughts and ideas, and everyone's are different, and everyone's are valid, so you really find yourself working with people who do things differently or know things differently, or work things differently. So everything, really, is very unique.

I think that even if you were to make the exact same game at two different companies with two different teams of people your experience would be completely different and the entire process would be completely unique. And as a result of that, the exact same game would come out completely differently. Because of those opinions and those thoughts.

So I would say that's the biggest unique thing, the people I'm working with and the way they think and the way they want to do things. The ideas people throw out there, it's really impressive.

GW: Tell us about your team.

JK: I've got a fairly small team of world builders. All of them are very talented. Some of them are fairly new to the industry. Some of them have done it before. I hired one of the gentlemen I worked on WoW with, Bo Bell. He's one of my world builders. Just hired on another senior who has been working in the industry a number of years.

So I've got a very talented team, and they know what they're doing. I'm very impressed with their work. They're very capable. I feel like I can hand them any number of things and they'll just take it and do amazing things with it.

That's one of the coolest parts. I can take what I have from art and from content. Say, "OK, we have a forest world," and I can say say, "Here, come up with this forest world." When one of my world builders does that they come up with maps, with this and that. It just takes on a whole life of its own. It's very interesting. It's very cool.

GW: What are some of the challenges that you face on a day-to-day basis?

JK: Well, building worlds, one of the things about it is it's at the back end of a whole lot of processes. You have content design, systems design, you have programming, you have art, and all of these people have a say into what everything looks like, what everything feels like, how everything plays.

Systems has a lot of interest in how the game plays. Content has a lot of interest in what the worlds are and what's happening there. Programming has a lot of interest in what's on the worlds and how you're building them, because they have to make all that happen. And the art team has a lot of desire to see it come out looking in a certain way.

So to build a world, we really need all of those teams to get all of their stuff together and bring it to us. We're really the back end of all of those processes. So once all of those people have finished their tasks and their work, they bring it to us, and we take all of that and we put it all together to create the final thing that the player sees.

One of the biggest challenges we face is it's a milestone-based project, it's in the games industry, there's things slipping, you don't forsee something happening here or there, so when it gets to world building there may already have been some slips here and there, it might already be pressured for time, so by the time it gets to us our schedule is really tight.

GW: Yeah, it sounds like almost everyone wants a piece of you in some way or another. How do you stay on top of that?

JK: Communication. If you're not talking to people it's all over. It happens sometimes. You'll be working on something, and it's like "No, no! I wanted it like 'this'!" Then you have to go back and figure out where that lack of communication occurred and fix it. I think we've got great communication on our team here. We're all talking with each other.

We talk with the programming team. We talk with the art team. We sit in the same room with the systems and the content people. My world builders, every day, are talking with the content people about the worlds and what the story is, how that ties to how it looks. Because how a world looks and what the story is go hand in hand.

You can't just throw a couple of hills down and expect people to get that there's a war going on here, and it's been going on for 15 years. You need to do things visually to give players that impression. The moment a player steps through the gate we want them to see and know what's happening. Maybe not exactly what's happening, but to get an impression of what's happening.

It's the job of Josh and his team to tell the player about a planet the moment he or she steps out of the Stargate.
They may not know that these Jaffa invaded this planet 15 years ago and there's been a war going ever since, but the moment they walk through the gate we want them to realize there's a war here. This is a battle zone. There are ruins. There are smoking craters. There is something going on. And you have to do that visually, otherwise we're just throwing text up on the screen. We're back to the days of Zork. I loved Zork, but you get what I'm talking about.

GW: I hope there's also an audio element to that.

JK: Oh, there is. We have an audio designer who's very good, and he's got some really cool stuff. Every time I walk into a zone that has been given an audio treatment, it's really cool, because it adds that element that sends shivers down your spine.

GW: Yeah, it's not placeholder music. This is the stuff! This is what it's made of.

JK: "Wow, this is cool." [Laughter]

GW: What software do you use when you're developing your worlds?

JK: We use a lot, actually, because anything that we can get our hands on that makes the whole process faster and easier for us is a benefit. It is a project, it does have a timeline, we do have an end date, so we need to get these things done quickly. So we need to hit that quality that we want. We want the look and the quality of story in the timeframe we've got. So anything we can use to make that happen is beneficial.

So we use everything from Photoshop and Word and stuff like that to do initial design layouts where we write up what we want it to be, or we draw up maps of everything we want it to be. And then we use SketchUp as a program, and we take that and we build out areas to kind of get quick, rough looks at them, and see how they're laid out, how we think they're going to play.

SketchUp's a great program. It lets us create little slideshows that show off entire scenes from whole different angles. It's completely in 3D and it's very, very fast. Even people who aren't technically inclined or artistically inclined can go in there and bust out really interesting 3-D structures very quickly.

And then we use World Machine to create generic landscape models so we can use it to create eroded hills or mountains or cliffs or valleys, or really any kind of landscape formation that you might see in the real world. You go out there and you see these plateaus with the eroded dirt down the sides. We want to capture that. And so, what world machine lets us do is it allows us to create that kind of thing. It allows us to say "We've got this plateau." We want a little more erosion or we want a little less erosion, or we want a deeper valley, or we want a higher plateau. And we mess with that.

Once we've created this template of what we think looks really good, we take it and we use a program called Mudbox

GW: Mudbox.

JK: Mudbox! Yeah. It's actually an art program that they use to apply height maps to models, and it works really well. What we use it for is we take this height map that we create in World Machine, which is a black and white height map of what we've created with the erosion and the hills, and we can then paint that, really, anywhere we want. We can scale it, we can size it, we can shrink it, we can grow it, we can add filters to it, and copy/paste it. Do whatever we need to in Mudbox to create our final height map that we then import into the program to give us all of our terrain. Pretty much right out the door we have a good 80, 90 percent of our terrain done.

GW: Wow.

JK: On WoW, that kind of thing took us four to six weeks, and with our process through World Machine and Mudbox it takes us maybe a day or two tops. It's the same level of quality.

GW: My gosh. One of the things that I always wonder about is texture mapping. Do you get to go out there and photograph stuff, and then bring it back in and paste it on objects? Skins? How does that work?

JK: That's more a question for the art team because if you go out there and take a picture of something, and you bring it back, it creates a definite style for your game. If I take a picture of a cliff side and paint it on a cliff side, that creates a style. And that style is very photorealistic. Many games use that style. Our game has a little more stylized of a look to it. Howard's [Lyon, Art Director] been doing some awesome stuff with our art, making it look stylized, yet still capture Stargate.

So what we do is a lot of our textures are hand-painted. Then we get them and paint them on that terrain. We're using a slightly modified Unreal 3 engine to actually paint textures on terrain and apply static meshes onto terrain, and do all that kind of stuff. And then once that's done it's ready for primetime.

GW: What do you take into account when initially designing an environment? Where does your department come in?

JK: Like I said earlier, we come in at the end. Not totally at the end. That's when we start working on it, is at the end. My teammates are involved from very early on. Content will say "Hey, we want a world that's like 'this'." And they'll sit down with the world builder who's been assigned to work on that world, and they'll come up with what the world is. They'll sit down together and talk about what they want it to be, what they want it to feel like, what they want going on there, what events, history, and all that stuff. So we're involved from that level.

The first thing we do is we take that information and we start creating a design layout. It tells us what the environment is. Is it a forest? Is it a fall forest? Is it a snowy forest, a coniferous forest, a deciduous forest? Is it a jungle? Does it look like the island on LOST? All that kind of stuff. What kind of people live here? Do they have a culture? What is their culture? What kind of economy do they have? What kind of animals live here? What kind of ambient animals? Violent, aggressive animals? Are there aggressive animals? What do these people feel about the world they're on? How do they feel about the players?

Expect environments that would never have been possible for a television budget, such as Tollana set ablaze.
All of that really comes in at that initial phase, which is all done on paper. The reason is when you do it on paper it's very easy to iterate. You can write it down a thousand different times and it takes a lot less time than if you go in and build the thing, and then go in and build the whole thing again.

We try to nail it out as much as possible, as fast as possible, on the paper-phase. And that's kind of where we start on it. And then once that paper phase is done we've got concept art. We've got a full idea of what this world is supposed to be, and we can actually start building it.

GW: Can you share anything about the original planets that are being designed for the game?

JK: They're really cool ... The one thing I'm going to share about them is any show or movie has a budget and is limited on what they can do. Not just because of budget. If you take a bunch of actors and you put them on stage, or you put them in a scene, it has to look right, it has to light right, it has to be right. Because once you use real people everything has to look right. In a video game space, because it's a video game, people kind of give it a little more suspension of disbelief. They kind of say "Well, it's a video game. I'll let them get away with a little bit more."

When you have a stylized art style like the one Howard's coming up with, and developing, [it] gives you a little bit more leeway. And then you take that and say, "Well, it's not going to cost us X amount of money to fly all of our actors to Zimbabwe" because we don't have to fly anybody. So it allows us to build these spaces completely from our imaginations, without having to shell out all that, to fly people around or get craft services, or licenses, or permits to film there. And then on top of that they usually have to go in and CG to make it look even more unusual.

We just get to go into our Unreal or our 3D Studio Max and build pretty much anything we want.

GW: Right, but you're limited in other interesting ways. If it's a set which you get to build, it's a façade. In this game you have to completely build everything from the ground up and be able to view it from all sides.

JK: Right. One of the things about an MMO that you don't run into with other games is that in some games you run through this fairly linear experience. There might be a couple of ways through it, but it's fairly linear. You go from point A to point B, you're at the end, you go on to the next level. But with an MMO you have to be able to go everywhere. So when you see a tree, you have to be able to run up to that tree and look around to the other side of the tree. When you see a building you need to be able to run up to the building and look around the other side of the building.

So yeah, all of that goes into it as well. But it does give us a great amount of freedom with the kind of worlds you go to. We can have lava flows. We can have upside-down water falls. We can do all kinds of crazy things that you really can't do without millions of dollars in CG work.

GW: Where do you see yourself going next, or do you see yourself staying on board through the expansions?

JK: There's an interesting thing that happens when you work in the games industry for a little while. Most game companies, people bounce around a lot, and if you talk to people who've been in the games industry for a while, they bounce around a whole lot. You get to a certain point in your life where you have family and kids and a wife, you want to buy a house, and you want to have a TV in the bedroom that you can watch, and all that kind of stuff.

GW: Yeah, stay put. Oh my gosh.

JK: I hear people say "Oh, I'm going to move on, and I'm going to do this, and I'm going to grow." I just want to be stable. So the longer I can stay here and do cool games and build cool things for people ... the longer I can do that, the happier I'll be.

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