Developer Interview with Jimmy Zielinsk

By Bl2 on October 19, 2011
Level 3

Back at HQ, we were lucky enough to sit down and chat with another one of the many talented members of the Treyarch team. Jimmy Zielinski was generous enough to chat with us about Call of Duty: World at War as well as other topics circling the video game industry. Jimmy is a Lead Animator at Treyarch whose responsibilities include maintaining the animation quality, overseeing the concept of behaviors for the AI, and working with scripters, designers, artists, and level builders to make sure that all the animations hold up. Basically, it's his job to make sure that the animation quality is high and that it is able to impact the gameplay in a big way. Jimmy has been in the industry for a while now and has plenty of stories and insight to share with the community.

Are there one or two big challenges in the World at War development that you can remember?

Yeah sure, one in particular would be the flamethrower. So we have this new concept of AI running around with flamethrowers or even the player running around with flamethrowers and what's the implication there? Well, right off the bat what it means is a lot of new animations added to a set that's already pushing the limits of how much animation we can get in the game. So we had to come up with efficient ways to supplement the AI with ways that show him holding the flamethrower and running around with the flamethrower. We had to limit what he could do to make sure that he wouldn't go into cover where a flamethrower might be stuck in a wall or things like that. At the same time, while we consider the quality aspect, we have to maintain the gameplay aspect of the flamethrower and not make it too slow or too heavy or something that would make it not fun to use. There is also the aspect of what the player does with the flamethrower. So now he's burning everything and the AI have to burn, and they have to have animations that aren't "shot with a bullet" death animations, but "burned with a flamethrower" animations. So it's just a matter of really connecting all the dots to that behavior so we can make the animations that make it look appropriate and make it stand out.

What do you love about working at Treyarch and working on the Call of Duty franchise?

One of the things is the fanbase; they are just really passionate. It's really a challenge to live up to their expectations and that is what we really strive to do. At the end of the day, we just want to make a great game. We know there is a fanbase that loves this game and we want to try to push it and come out with new things. That is a huge challenge for me as a developer, to have a built in audience that is just ready to receive it and give me a lot of good feedback.

How long have you been working at Treyarch?

I've been here a little over five years, but I've been on the Call of Duty franchise longer than I've been here. I worked at a company previously that did Call of Duty: Finest Hour. So, my history in games goes back further with Call of Duty than it does with Treyarch. I was always a big World War II buff and I loved the history of it and the lesson to be learned as humans, that kind of emotional side of it. Now that we're pushing that emotional side, I'm really happy that the franchise is going in that direction.

That brings up an interesting question. In terms of the emotional aspect, how do you think games have progressed into the realm of storytelling?

I think the way we finished World War II with our last game, really was the first time that any game, personally, showed war the way that it is supposed to be. You know, it's gruesome and it's horrific. We didn't want to push it so far that we were on a soapbox saying how tragic war is, because at the end of the day we are making a game. So we really wanted to find a balance of making this fun while at the same time showing the player and letting them experience that side of war. It gives us that contrast of sweet and sour. We have the sweet gameplay and the fun experience and we have that sour contrast of this really horrible stuff that is still going on in wars today as well as back then.

On a lighter note, can you remember any funny moment or experience that happened during World at War's development?

Oh, definitely, on a daily basis. I mean we all take our jobs seriously and we want to respect the art and the craft of all things. But really, when you break it down, we're a bunch of kids making games. We still have toys and Nerf guns and all that kind of stuff going on around me that just makes it a really great environment to work in. Funny thing, going back to my first experience with Call of Duty, me and one of the lead engineers at the time, we scripted in some temp dancing Nazis that he then put in a secret room. We put even more Easter eggs like that into the game. When we saw that go out on the community, it was like the funniest thing in the world.

Do you have a favorite mission from World at War?

Not really a mission, but the ending with the Berlin stuff, with the visuals was just really…, we had never seen Berlin done that way in a game before. I think the scale was captured, the end of the war was captured, the way everything was destroyed, and that was just a really good-looking level. Gameplay wise I think it offered some unique challenges with the follow-sniper kind of stuff. The whole level was just orchestrated from moment to moment of just really intense, really severe, diving under flamethrowers, being chased by dogs, running up ladders, running across scaffolding, it all just really had an epic feel. I think that the whole ending of the Berlin level really did it for me.

So what was your story for getting into the game industry?

So it was kind of an accident, to some degree. I started out as a fine artist, sketching and oil painting and stuff. I started getting older, had a kid and decided that I needed to make some money, because you don't make much money painting pictures, or at least I couldn't figure out how. So then I got into something a little more digital. I got into web design and HTML and even writing various low level scripts. From that I realized that I still wanted to do art, so I got into 3D modeling. I realized I wanted to make my previously 2D static art come to life and move. I really kind of evolved over this path where I wanted to be the next guy that animates the next Jurassic Park. That was all I wanted to do, was make my dinosaur. I spent a lot of years refining my dinosaur, all the way from building it, rigging it, skinning it, lighting it, animating it, and I just made it all the way. Now that it was done, I was going to ship my stuff off to Dreamworks or ILM or somebody whose going to do some big production with dinosaurs. So I got a call from this guy who said he saw my resume and reel online and he thinks I would really fit with this company whose doing this title as a kind of technical/artist or animator where I would do scripting of scenes within video games. So, I thought that might be cool and I took them up on it and the rest is really history. I jumped on Finest Hour. I helped script and animate some scenes of the game and realized, this is it. I can do art and bring it to life and people can actually play it. Right then, I realized that there was another dimension to art and that now people can actually experience and make things happen themselves. So, I left the film side behind me and went in that direction.

For people looking to get into the game industry, do you have some general advice for them to follow?

Well, there is always that question of where to start. There's school, but I'm also very self-taught. I went on the Internet and found tutorials and whatever I needed for that moment to learn how to get me to that next step, get me to whatever I was doing personally. So, I always recommend that people just learn constantly and get a really good expertise in what they are doing and you know its never too early to start shopping around and putting your resume and reels online. You never know when you are going to get a break or not and the earlier you start putting yourself out there, even if you feel like your animation or art might not live up to whatever the standard is for the industry, you are still going to get that feedback from people online. So, by putting your stuff out there, you are going to find ways to get better. Get yourself out there and just start knocking on doors.

On a different note, what are your top three games of all time?

Well directly, and as of recent history, I think Nazi Zombies is easily in that top three. I can't say enough about it. I was there from the beginning and I really have a place in my heart for that game and I think it is just so much fun. To be franticly chased by zombies and have your friends try to help you and keep you alive, while you keep them alive, we just did a solid job with that and I am really happy with it. I don't think you could go into the studio today and not find 10 or 15 people who are waiting to jump into that game. I would also probably have to go back to the archives and say, even though it's cliché, Pong. As far as a game goes, you can't get more fun than a little glowing square going back and forth. So, that's probably on my list. Lastly, maybe I'll go with a game I played a long time ago, a game called Parasite Eve. I think that game still resonates for me today. I still draw up that game for ideas. When people are coming up with new features, I say, "well there was this thing in Parasite Eve…," and I just always find myself doing that. It just tells me that I really had a connection with that game, whether it was the music, the cinematics, and the animation, all of it. I really just think they did a great job with that game. You find little treasures, there's the whole sci-fi element, the monsters, and I just had a good time with that game.

Speaking of top games, do you have any genres, outside of shooters, that you are a big fan of?

Totally, I am huge fan of chess. Whether online or video chess, I also have a real chess board that is 4-way chess. It's really fun and I actually pull it out at work when we are having a social day or barbeque or something. The animators will all play a game of 4-way chess. I also love music games, I mean in my heart, aren't we all rock stars? Playing Guitar Hero and stuff I get to live out those dreams and still be a father of two.

Going back to the Map Packs and Zombie mode, are there any great Easter eggs that you know about?

I know that in the new one, Der Reise, there are an overwhelming amount of Easter eggs and I am pretty sure that not everything has been discovered yet.

So for the last question, are there any big trends you see coming up in the industry?

In terms of bringing our industry in line with cinema and film and what qualities we can reach, we are always pushing the boundaries. Especially this year, we've been making significant upgrades in our engine, animation tools, and art quality that are going to get us a lot closer to that cinematic feel. So there are definitely some cinematic-esque features that will make it into our future projects.

Any last things you would like to say to the Call of Duty community?

Yeah, just keep playing the game and the more you play it and the more we hear from you, the more we know what direction to take the game in. We definitely listen, we definitely hear the comments, and in fact a lot of the things that went into the Map Packs were based on feedback from the community. So, that's all I can say, just keep voicing your opinions.