Nox Developer Profile: Michael Booth

Released in the early part of this year by the Westwood Studios division of Electronic Arts, Nox chronicles the exploits of an ordinary character, a humble mechanic in living in a trailer park in Florida, who is mysteriously transported to a fantasy world filled with monsters, magic and mayhem. Upon his arrival there, he finds he must learn the ways of a Warrior, Wizard or Conjuror in order to battle sundry enemies and to defeat the wicked Hecubah. Only then can he hope to secure his return home.

The Cinderella story behind Nox is an equally interesting one, involving the extraordinary exploits of Michael Booth who conceived the game in the spare bedroom of his apartment. Not being in the games industry, he took a demo to the Game Developers Conference where he managed to catch the attention of a publisher. With Nox having become one of this year’s early hits, we thought it would be a good time to introduce Michael Booth and to learn more about the man behind this hit action RPG.

What was your position on the Nox team, and in this role, what were your foremost functions and responsibilities?

Well, I was the game’s “creator”, and served as the Technical Director once Nox became an internal Westwood project. I also was primarily responsible for the design and gameplay of the multiplayer aspect of Nox, and the game mechanics of Nox in general.

What’s your background as a gamer? When and how did you first become interested in games?

I’ve grown up with video games. My family actually had a Pong “home system” which I played quite a bit when I was very young. I also spent a lot of time in the arcades with such games as Space Invaders, Asteriods, Donkey Kong, Tempest, Dragons’ Lair, and of course, Gauntlet. My first experience with home computers was with the Apple II in the school library. I was immediately fascinated, and worked through the summer to save money to get a VIC-20 – 5k of RAM! Yea!. I learned to write my own mini-games on those systems, graduating to a Commodore64, then a series of Amiga computers, and finally a PC.

What kinds of games do you tend to enjoy?

I enjoy games of all types, but I find myself playing more action-oriented games than anything else. My favorite games are those that make me forget where I am, and feel like I’m adventuring in a strange or new world. If a game can get me to buy into its environment and make me actually feel afraid or angry or happy about a situation, then I’m hooked for a long time.

What are some of your all-time favorite games, and why?

There are a number of games that have really been interesting to me. One of the first games that made me think about more than twitch reflexes and high scores was Atari’s Gauntlet. I played that game almost every day with three of my friends in the late ’80’s. The feeling of defeating a horde of monsters with my friends all working together to solve problems on the fly was very original at that time.

Another game that really made an impact on me was the card game Magic: The Gathering. The interactions of the spells, monsters, and rules made for a really interesting strategic experience. Both Magic and Gauntlet were big influences on Nox.

What have you played recently that you enjoyed?

My more modern favorites include System Shock (I & II), Half Life, and Thief. These games are very intense, but also are set in believable worlds with interesting stories. They are also full of excellent moments like Half Life’s Tentacle Monster in the rocket silo. Moments like those stick with you for a long time after the game itself is over.

In a similar way, Out of This World, Heart of Darkness, & Abe’s Oddysee are also some of my favorites. Granted, occasionally these games were unbelievably hard, but their worlds and creatures were outlandish and always interesting.

For pure adrenaline, I enjoy playing Starsiege: Tribes, Quake III, Unreal Tournament, and of course, Nox multiplayer. These games have become even more addictive with the addition of team-based games, and modes that require more strategic, on-the-fly, thinking.

I could ramble on for pages about the pile of other games I enjoy, but those seem to be on the top of my list.

Are there any titles you’re especially looking forward to playing?

I’m really looking forward to Tribes II, Team Fortress II, and Thief II. Thief II is actually out now, so I’ll be picking that up very soon. I loved the atmosphere of the first one until I started running into zombies and other supernatural monsters, then it kind of lost me. I’m hoping that the sequel focuses more on “realistic” situations: breaking into a castle, sneaking around a prison, that sort of thing. I thought the behaviors of the guards were really fun. The first time one of them yelled “hey – what was that!” and started hunting around for me with his sword drawn while I was hiding in a corner, I was hooked.

As for Tribes II, from what I’ve seen it will likely suck away my life when it hits the shelves. The first Tribes had a number of things that really held my attention: interesting weapons, strategic defenses, the commander’s console, jump jets, and a real feeling of being on an alien planet fighting a war.

For the same reasons, Team Fortress II should be just as compelling. I’m imagining this game will feel much more like modern-day warfare, and should have a lot of strategic depth and team interactions as well.

What is your professional background? How did you get into the games industry, and has making games lived up to your expectations?

I have a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, and I would have a Masters in Computer Science if I had finished my thesis instead of starting Nox! I guess that shows where my priorities areā€¦

Before I began Nox, and in the early days of its development, I worked in the real-time simulation industry. I was involved with companies doing mechanical simulations of vehicles, robots, and military machinery, where my responsibilities were primarily 3D visualization and artificial intelligence programming.

During this time, I started work on Nox in a spare bedroom of my house. In order to help fund the development of the game, I co-founded Hyperion Technologies. Hyperion was to be both a simulation and an entertainment company. Not only were we creating Nox, but we were also creating full scale driving simulators, complete with 360 degree projected video, a full sized car cab, and large motion systems to simulate G-forces. This strange mix of projects continued until Westwood decided to acquire Nox and bring the Nox team out to California.

My passion has always been gaming, so to think a game I started in my house has become a published Westwood product is really mind-blowing for me. Although it was a tremendous effort to create and complete Nox, I feel very lucky to have been able to pull it off. That said, making a video game is incredibly hard. The public demands to see the most incredible thing ever, and there are a lot of very talented people trying to give it to them. To compete requires an almost insane amount of effort and creativity, and the challenges will only increase as time goes on. That is a bit daunting to consider.

What do you consider the best and worst parts of your job?

The best part of the job is the aspect of creation. I really enjoy brainstorming new game mechanics. To then have the resources to see your ideas become reality is amazingly rewarding.

The worst part of the job has to be time constraints. There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the cool things we think of!

What kinds of activities do you enjoy away from the job? What are your main hobbies and other interests?

I play a lot of video games, actually. That is my primary hobby. However, when I can I enjoy a good game of tennis, and playing my guitar. I used to be a guitarist in a band when I lived in the midwest. We played almost every weekend in various little bars and dance halls. That was a lot of fun, and someday I hope to find the time to play in a group again.

A few weeks ago my wife and I became parents for the first time. My new son, Zachary, will be my primary hobby from now on, I expect.

Great news! Hearty congratulations, and our very best wishes for the little gamer. In addition, our thanks to Michael for taking the time to tell us about himself and his very interesting route to becoming a successful game maker.

Richard Aihoshi – “Jonric”

Originally from (offline)