Great Characters Matter

[My friend Matt Lieto complimented me recently by saying that I’m like an onion, with lots of layers. In my experience that’s true of most people. But I do enjoy the process of peeling that onion and of sharing that process in writing. And I feel privileged that people seem to enjoy reading it as well. In thinking about how I ended up here, it was too much to put into a single post. So I decided to break it up into three parts. I have all three parts written, so it won’t be a long wait between. But serial form seemed appropriate. Let’s start peeling…]

Peeling The Onion. Part 1.

I’m incredibly excited to announce that I have joined Respawn Entertainment as a Technical Game Designer working on the free-to-play battle royale game Apex Legends. If you’re wondering what exactly that means, I cribbed this from the job posting (which has since been taken down because I got it!).

What’s it like to be a Technical Designer at Respawn? Day to day, our Technical Designers tasks include prototyping, iterating, testing, and solving problems. You will use your scripting and engineering skills extensively. Some specific opportunities in this role include a focus on improving existing Apex Legends monetization systems such as battlepass, events, store menus, as well as implementing new and upcoming features for the monetization and events team.

Why did I decide to stay in the Gaming industry rather than the Cycling – or Fitness/Sporting/Triathlon – industries? In terms of professional experience, I certainly have more in the latter. But in terms of passions, my heart really does lies in the former. Which is maybe a surprise even to people who know me well. I actually believe this is the most meaningful career decision I’ve made since deciding to pursue triathlon in 2003. And I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how and why I got here. And I decided to share that story in a three part mini-autobiography talking about three of the biggest influences throughout my life – stories (as told via the written word, through books and comic books), video games, and engineering. I feel like the athletic part of my life is a story that I’ve told in bits and pieces before. Most notably in the awesome four part series with Tim Carlson for Slowtwitch. And also because I documented so much of it in my own writings during my triathlon career.

But this part of who I was and who I am is not something that I have ever really talked much about. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I ended up working in the gaming industry, which seems to be the sort of industry that lends itself to quirky, meandering backstories. And so I decided to share mine, both for myself for posterity, and for my children and – I hope – for some of you to enjoy. To help provide some context, there are two things I’ll share about myself, one of which will probably surprise no one, and the other of which might surprise most. The first – the unsurprising one – is that I am a loner.

It may seem obvious that someone who spends long hours training is necessarily comfortable spending inside of their own head, but that’s not necessarily true. Simon Whitfield was – and is – one of the most social people I know. I’ve heard that the pro cyclist Ian Boswell has literally never ridden his bike alone; he rides with his team, with his dad, with the local group, ANYONE. Ironman maybe tends to attract a slightly more solitary athlete, but I would say that even within Ironman, I tended to the extreme. I would train with other people one or twice a year. I was a bit more social when swimming, but that’s mostly because other people cannot easily talk to you in the pool. And I like that. And I’ve pretty much always been this way.

The second thing is that I only ever came to think of myself as an athlete until fairly late in life. Sports were something I did, but they weren’t really a part of who I was. I was an active kid, but I was mostly a bookworm. I didn’t really become an athlete until near the end of high school, when I really fell in love with lacrosse. And I didn’t become an endurance athlete until college when I discovered crew. Up until that point, what I really loved to do was to read and to play games (by which I mean “structured” games like board games and video games). Let’s briefly put aside the topic of games for now. We’ll cover that in the next part. What I really want to talk about are characters. Because it was characters that really drew me into games. And my love of characters comes from books.

Death In The Family

If I had to estimate the one thing that I’ve spent more time in my life doing that anything else, it would be reading. I read a lot of what, if they’re old enough, are called myths and legends. And I read a lot of what we now consider to be the rather bland category fiction, but are what I would call our own era’s myths and legends. Fiction implies it isn’t true. But great books always feel like they could be. Great books are real.

I read pretty much everything. Fantasy. Sci-Fi. Horror. Historical fiction. Classic literature. And a lot of comic books. Jerry Robinson (co-creator of both Robin and the Joker) was a family friend. And the Joker was – and is – always my favorite comic character. The Joker is a villain, but he’s everybody’s favorite villain. I used to spend countless hours tracing Robinson’s and other’s renderings of the Clown Prince of Crime. My copy of The Greatest Joker Stories Ever Told was covered with tracing lines. Up until about middle school, if you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have probably said a comic book artist. I drew a lot. And the Joker was my favorite subject.

The Joker is the star of the two most transformative comics that I ever read – Alan Moore’s The Killing Joke and Jim Starlin’s Death In The Family, which are remarkable for how dark they are. I grew up watching The A-Team, and GI Joe, and MacGyver. Lots of bullets. Lot of explosions. But no one ever died. No one ever really even got shot. But that changed in Moore’s book. The Joker shoots – and paralyzes – Barbara Gordon. It’s also a deep exploration of the Joker’s backstory and psychology. It’s profound and prescient; I don’t know if Joaquin Phoenix’s character was informed by Moore’s rendering, but I also can’t imagine how it could not have been. Starlin’s four-comic series is equally moving. In it, the Joker ultimately beats Jason Todd (one of the several young men to fill the role of Robin) to death with a crowbar. It’s less explorative of the Joker’s psychology than Moore’s book but equally tragic. It was in these books that I got a sense of the power of comics as a medium, and – in particular – of the power of character.

Sam Keith’s The Maxx

I was also lucky be into comics – and in particular this type of comic – during a pretty remarkable period. Todd McFarlane launched Image Comics with Spawn in 1992, when I was in middle school. I have a copy of Spawn #1 (and pretty much every other Image #1 for about three years running…) in a plastic sleeve at my parent’s house. I loved Image. Every Image comic was like those iconic Joker stories. They were dark. Complex. Ambiguous. I identified with the characters deeply. They were real. But not realistic. The characters were believable, even though they lived in a world that was obvious fantasy. It was interesting to see Marvel try to pivot at this time. X-Factor and Cable both come to mind as Marvel’s attempt to be more like Image. To have darker and more complicated heroes. But those characters had nothing on the great Image characters to my mind. There was no Marvel character whose conflict compared with a character like Spawn.

Image was the publisher of my all time favorite comic – Sam Keith’s The Maxx. One thing that I especially loved about The Maxx was that it was all Sam Keith. And Keith’s incredible artistic style matched his narrative. Sam Keith was the first of what I guess I might call “weird” artists that I fell in love with. His pencils were extreme. It was more like caricature. The Maxx is just so outlandish. And the story matched the visuals. It was especially great that MTV did an animated series at the same time. (This was also when the iconic – and refreshingly dark – Batman, The Animated Series was on TV. I loved that show and have seen every episode…) In finding Keith, I was driven to find more artists like him. Jae Lee was another, whose extreme renderings of classic heroes (his Wolverine is still the best to me) really made those characters click. They weren’t the unambiguously “good” heroes of classic Marvel. They were finally real in a way that I never perceived them to be with classic Marvel.

Jae Lee’s Wolverine

As I dug more, I discovered, for the first time, the graphic novel. Both the long form ones, and the more traditional (from a comic book perspective) episodic ones. Death In The Family, for example, is to me really just a graphic novel in four parts. And that’s how I think of it. The stories where the visuals and the story went a bit awry were always my favorite. Stories like Dave McKean’s Black Orchid and Tim Vigil’s Faust (which is very much NSFW if you search for images of it; the Wikipedia link, however, is fine). Black Orchid was my first exposure to Neil Gaiman, who – in hindsight – I wish I’d read more of. Bart Sears’s Turok reboot for Valiant in the mid-90’s was another favorite, with art and complex storyline that really challenged the nature of what a hero could be. And comics helped me, as an introvert, to make sense of both the world and of myself.

Around this time, I also discovered my favorite story and character in any medium, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, which tells the story of The Gunslinger, Roland of Gilead. The Dark Tower was eventually done as a graphic novel, but sadly I had “outgrown” (as if…) comics by that time; in 2007, I was most definitely an athlete. But the big omnibus is perpetually in my Amazon cart.

But what does all this have to do with gaming? Because to make a great game, I believe you need great characters. You need characters with stories. And that’s what Apex Legends has. And that’s really why I love it and wanted to work on it. The next part of this series is about the influence of games in my life, but that story really starts here, with character. I didn’t really come to love games until I found games with characters that I could love and stories that I could immerse myself in.

When I started thinking about what games I wanted to work on, I knew I needed a game with great characters. I did not expect to find that in an FPS battle royale game. Apex Legends is quite unique in that regard. But I think it’s what makes it special. And the focus on narrative is deeply embedded in the culture of both the game and of Respawn as a company. Because of COVID, the seasonal content for Seasons 6 & 7 had to be “simplified.” Rather than animated clips, it’s being told via comics, which one page unlocking at a time. At first, this seemed like a concession. But I love it. It takes me back to the thing that brought me into this world in the first place. And the simple and slow nature of it is even more powerful. Because the storyline has to be good. You can’t gloss over a lack of story with stunning visuals. Not that stunning visuals are bad; Blooodhound’s and Wraith’s Stories From The Outlands episodes are both fantastic and worth watching. But the comics are refreshing and tell stories in a way that is just different from a “movie.” In both cases, though, the importance of these characters’ histories to the game as a whole is profound.

The choice of the word Legends was a significant one. Set in the universe of Titanfall, Apex Legends easily could have been named Apex Predators (or something like that). But legend conveys something different. Something deeper. Something more important. It underscores the importance of story. Of narrative arc. And of character. Why do I play Apex Legends? And why am I excited to work on it? Because it has great characters. And great characters matter…

[In the next part of my story about how a mechanical engineer turned pro triathlete turned game designer ended up working on one of the biggest AAA games on the planet, I talk about the role that video games have played in my life. In the final part, I talk about engineering. It’s been fun for me to tell this story, and I hope that it’s been fun for you all to read it. At the very least, I hope it gives my kids some history and some curiosity about where their own passions might lead them.]

4 thoughts on “Great Characters Matter

  1. Change is hard. But real growth comes from change. As a pro athlete and somewhat public figure we watched you grow and change. This will be good for you. Always enjoy family and never take them for granted.
    Best of luck in this new endeavor!


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