Lead FX Artist
Joining us from an enormous permanent-expanding cloud of smoke and flame that somehow causes no drop in framerate whatsoever comes the Laffin' Saffy, the Sub-Saharan Caesar of Frightening FX, the Emir of Explosions and Tickler of Particles Extraordinaire Mr Niel Venter. Damascened from alternating skelps of Wootz and bulat steel he speaks fluent BANG and ZZZAPP, and can emit any sort of particle at will.
When he's not exploding, he's on fire. When he's not on fire, he's emitting plumes of smoke. When he's not emitting smoke he's shooting sparks, which leads inevitably to him exploding, on fire, and emitting plumes of smoke. His hobbies include being the sea, serving as sysadmin for the act of walking and baking gravel such that it turns into fish, or birds. He's exactly one Niel tall, and weighs 0.1 decaNiels.
Things You Were Too Afraid To Ask...
Every once in a while, we interrogate one of our own and put their answers up for all the world to see. Read on to find out more about what Niel does, how he ended up at Splash Damage, and more.
What do you do at Splash Damage?
I am the lead Special effects artist, which basically means I am the main pyromaniac/crazy scientist/wizard.
Why did you want to work in the games industry and how did you get started?
In a completely roundabout way, when I was a kid I would program my own games on an old Atari 800XL, but growing up in South Africa it seemed I would never be able to work in the games industry, as we had none to speak of, it was as unthinkable as deciding I want to be Japanese or American (both notions I actually did consider) and in the end I studied Fine Art, with the hope of somehow using my skill as a sculptor to break into the world of special-effects- prosthetic/animatronic in the movie industry (which also was another industry completely absent from South Africa). Instead I ended up lecturing art, making a living off doing portraits, cartoons, and murals and even had a cottage industry t-shirt business for a while, but eventually I fell in love with this a new thing- computer graphics.
I set about teaching myself the basics, and eventually convinced people to give me a job doing computer animation for a tv channel, and after that I tried my hand as a programmer/web-designer. It seemed that games would be the perfect marriage of my technical and artistic tendencies, so I saddled up my trusty rhinoceros (the standard form of transport in Africa) and set off to the sunny climes of the England, where they were kind enough to allow me to do what I love doing and even pay me for it.
Do you have any tips for people wanting to break in?
Have realistic expectations, we don’t care about your idea for a game, seriously we have no shortage of ideas, getting games made is hard and laborious and not glamorous at all. Most people imagine we sit around playing games all day and your parents will probably hope you get a real job one day. Trust me game-development is more like masochists marathon. The best metaphor I’ve heard is that it is as complex as simultaneously designing and building a jumbo jet, and while you are airborne and coming in to a landing you are still building the landing gear.
Develop a skill like audio engineering, writing, coding or 3D art, make a demoreel, or even a little indie/modd game but most importantly find some way to demonstrate your skills. A common problem I often see is people showing their less good work hoping to illustrate how much they’ve improved. Don’t do that! Only show your very best. one minute of spectacular work can be completely undermined by an additional five minutes of rubbish. If in doubt, remove.
Games is a collaborative effort, so you need to be able to articulate your thoughts clearly, it is no good if you are a genius but impossible to work with, at the interview you will also be evaluated for how well you will fit in with the group, our success depends on our ability to work towards our common goal, and having said that is possibly the best thing about this career is the awesome people you’ll work with who will influence you in ways you can hardly imagine.
Be persistent, be able to take criticism and learn from it, and very importantly be informed about the place you apply to, what they are known for and think hard about what you have to offer them instead of that they should train you up and invest in you until such time as you are ready to be productive.
What other games have you worked on?
These are the games that were released, but I worked on just as many which never got published.
- Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth (Xbox, PC)
- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (Xbox 360, PS3)
- Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs (PS2, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii)
- The Wheelman (Xbox 360, PS3)
Which of your past projects was your favourite to work on, and why?
Some of my favourite projects are ones which have been cancelled (I worked on more than twice the amount of games than those that were finally released), and I regret that people will never see some of the things we spent so much love and attention on. One of the cancelled games -‘Necessary Force’, I worked on at Midway before they went bankrupt. I enjoyed because it had such a cool premise. I was working on a fully dynamic weather system and time-of-day system, you could run around in this open world, press a debug key and whoosh it would literally go from sunny afternoon to Hurricane Katrina with all the intervening stages, it is really rewarding when such a complicated thing suddenly starts working. It is hard to describe that feeling.
Why did you join Splash Damage?
I have always been a fan of their games, you have no idea how many hours of my life was spent playing Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, I figured I wanted to be part of that. I want to work on something that will keep other people occupied for so much of their precious time on this crazy planet. When I came in for an interview I was just blown away by the talented people I met, it is the kind of place I could really identify with.
What is it like to work at Splash Damage?
At first I was apprehensive when I found I was expected be cybernetically enhanced and have my genes spliced with equal parts ant and octopus for ‘increased productivity’, but by now I have gotten used to my daily ration of protein-caffeine-cubes.
What are the best and worst parts of your job?
The best part is making explosions, the worst part is being in meetings planning the making of explosions.
What was your first gaming experience?
My first gaming experience was back in the primordial days when our species were taking our first tentative steps in the then new bewildering world of computer graphics where a pixel was as large as a lego block, when every game was a marvel of technology and nobody could image that one day they will be called ‘retro’ in the same tone as one might say ‘Zimmerframe’. ‘Prince of Persia’ was still a side-scroller, and when you got stuck in ‘Space quest’ the internet have not been invented yet to look for answers, or to cheat your way through the clever ‘adult’ questions you had to answer to prove you were old enough to play ‘Leisure suit Larry’.
What types of games do you like, and what's your favourite game of all time?
I like all kinds, and my favourite, well, that’s a bit tricky since that changes every few months. One of my favourite games is ‘Monkey Island’, and more recently I loved ‘Red Dead Redemption’ and ‘Deus Ex’.
What do you enjoy doing when you're not at work?
When I am not at work, they switch me off and I cease to exist, but I like to pretend to myself that I enjoy long walks on the beach, have a good lie-in and sometimes reading a good book.
What's the meaning behind your nickname?
Sonofamortician, well the funny thing is that it is basically true, my dad was a mortician, and I needed a slightly sinister moniker for the forum of a horror game I worked on.
If you have any questions you'd like to ask Niel, feel free to post them in the comments below. Our forum-trained tapirs will try to answer as many of them as possible.