Interviews » FileFront (10/25/2004)
Note: This interview originally appeared on FileFront.

Game designers sometimes start out in a variety of positions before they finally find themselves a place in the industry.

Jeff Fiske helped people fly the friendly skies.

“When I decided to get out of the aviation industry, I applied for a Q&A position at Impressions Software in 1994,” Fiske said. “The rest is history.”

Fiske is currently the Design Director for Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile. He says that when working in a small software company, his position often means “taking a step back and plugging into whatever is needed.”

The 38 year-old former Delta Airline employee worked in customer service and management for the airline, which had a lot to do with getting into the video game industry, oddly enough.

“It is quite possible that fifty percent of the reason I was hired was for my customer service background,” Fiske said. “[At Delta] we actually used to answer the phone there and, dare I say it, speak directly to the customer!”

He took his time getting the degree in Aviation Management, apparently not quite the scholar in his undergraduate days. “I was on the six year plan… or was it seven?” he said.

Fiske went to a few schools before graduating from Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire.

“I did fine, though I wish I had paid a little more attention in a couple of topics, particularly now that I have kids of my own,” he said.

For Impressions Software, he has worked for the company in a number of capacities, from game tester to producer. He says he loves the creation of a gaming experience and “bringing something innovative, fun and successful to the marketplace.”

“Releasing a game that is embraced by the community is extremely satisfying,” Fiske said. “I would not put myself through this pain and suffering if fans out there did not enjoy the end product.”

Pain and suffering is something that he has a lot of experience with, especially now that Children of the Nile is nearing completion. “We have worked very hard for almost three years to get to this point… [sometimes] it is the least enjoyable part of my job,” Fiske said.

This game, though, nearly fits his ideal game design experience.

“I still love PC gaming—I still love creating immerse environments that enable a private journey for the player,” he said. “I think CotN is that kind of game.”

Defining his “dream game,” though, is a bit tougher because “you always hit some limit in technology,” he said. “I can always look to the future to give us more opportunities.”

His outlook on the industry is, perhaps, slightly optimistic with hints of cynicism. In terms of producing quality games, it’s hit and miss with more miss. “I would like to see some big budget games get back to gaming goodness, simple game mechanics,” he said.

The big budget behind big titles are not exactly producing big results. Identical results, maybe.

“There are text based games that are far better game models than a lot of the current games that cost $20 million to make,” Fiske said. “Everything gets massaged so much by publishers, the games wind up morphing into clones.”

Publishers are often the targets of criticism when trying to define the problems with innovation in the video game industry. While they are an easy scapegoat, he said, it may not be that simple.

“Why does everyone do the same types of games? Publishers believe that is where the money is, and who is to say they are wrong?” he said. “Also, it is a lot easier to explain to stockholders, or your boss that you thought your Half-Life clone was going to be a killer sales success rather than justifying why “Cabbage Patch Ninjas in Space” sold less than 50,000 [copies].”

He said that the industry is still “really immature,” and its short life span is conducive to industry heads that are actually inexperienced. “How many executives, marketing managers, or sales reps never play PC games?” he said.

But he noted that it is improving, and that hopefully in ten years there will be advances in all areas of the industry, including better ways of streamlining the launch of games. Valve Software’s “Steam” delivery system, where gamers are able to download the game onto their computers and play them instantly the day of release without needing to shop at the store for them, is an example of such improvement.

“I would love to see someone figure out how to make something like [the] Steam of the Phantom’s game delivery method work,” he said. “Put the games out in the marketplace and let the consumer drive the market.”

Fiske hopes to be able to continue as much as he can toward the industry’s advance. When asked where he saw himself in the future, he said, “Right here, hopefully for a good long run.”