BE ABLE TO RUN THE NEW DUKE NUKEM GAME                                       
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    |   AMMO   |  HEALTH  |  5  6  7  |  \===/  |    ARMOR    |#| ....  ......... |
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Richard "Levelord" Gray interview

May 2021

Selected timeline
  • 1996: Duke Nukem 3D (3D Realms)
  • 1997: Quake Mission Pack, Scourge of Armagon (Hipnotic Software)
  • 1998: SiN (Ritual)
  • 2000: Heavy Metal F.A.K.K 2 (Ritual)
  • 2004: Counter-Strike: Condition Zero (Ritual)
  • 2006: SiN Emergence (Ritual)
  • 2016: Duke Nukem 3D: 20th Anniversary World Tour

Richard Gray is better known by his moniker the Levelord which is suitability apt given the highly regarded levels he has produced for a series of timeless games over his career

His career got off to a flying start by creating many of the levels for Duke Nukem 3D and the Atomic Edition follow up. Shortly afterwards he co-founded Ritual Entertainment which would go on to produce many fondly remembered shooters.

You’ve had a long and successful career in the games industry. What are your earliest memories of playing computer games?

That would have to be the original text version of Adventure (aka Colossal Cave, Advent). It was first released in 1976, I believe, by Will Crowther. I give it credit for starting today’s genres: FPS/TPS, RTS, RPG, and adventure. It was the first computer (non-arcade) game I ever played. I found this game, and my future, buried in our mainframe of an HP3000 at work. That was 1982 or so.

I wrote a version in COBOL (business application, still used today by banks, insurance companies!). I knew then that I was hooked. I quit my job and went to UCLA to learn serious programming and make games myself. I dreamed that someday I could start GrayMatter Software. That never happened, though.

What were some of your favourite computer games to play growing up?

Growing up? We had no computers when I was growing up. We only had sticks, and sometimes rocks. Seriously, though, I’m in my 60s now. The games I played were pool, pinball, and foosball.

Back in 1994 you had your first taste of level design fame through the GrayDOOM pack you created for Doom that contained The Swamp, Imp Skull, Bad Water, and The Gauntlet. What led you to get into making levels for Doom?

By that time, I had been working at an aerospace company as a software engineer for 4 years. I had graduated from UCLA, but quickly discovered that getting that degree did not make me smart enough to write game engine code.

During that time, Wolfenstein came out. I was reminded of how I wanted to make games, but there was nothing I could do about it. Then DOOM came out, and shortly after that, ...DEU, the DOOM Editing Utility. Everything took off from there.

In your mind, what are some of the deadly sins of level design?

Other than the Duke Nukem World Tour in 2016, I haven’t done anything related to FPSs since 2007. Back then, the biggest sin was framerate choking performance.

Likewise, do you have any golden rules of level design that you always follow?

Again, I really can’t say because things have changed so drastically. The only thing that I’m sure about, is the Fun Factor. Of course, the most important thing about a game is whether it’s fun or not.

The first suspended platform deathmatch map "The Edge of Oblivion" for Scourge of Armagon

Do you prefer to make single player or multiplayer levels?

They were both fun to make. If I had to pick, though, I’d take single-player. They take more time, but there is more enjoyment in getting immersed in the level and its story.

As technology and tastes have changed, game design has changed over the years to suit. Looking back, how do you feel that the levels you’ve designed over your career have aged?

In the 13 years since I semi-retired, I have not played a single AAA game other than the Duke Nukem World Tour. I don’t even watch game trailers or read game-related articles.

Wait, ...I take that back! I have been involved with Mundfish and their up-and-coming game Atomic Heart. Robert Bagratuni sent me a link to their game and said “You have to see this. I think you’ll like it.” I get suggestions like this, of course, and always think to myself, “I don’t care about games anymore.” I will watch the trailer, but only as a quick scan so I can tell the person “I watched it, nice!” This time, though, it was different. I immediately fell in love with this game. It’s difficult to describe why. If you haven’t already, you only need to watch a few of the trailers to see for yourself. So I’ve been helping them, when I can with little things. What’s really nice is that they are located right across the river from me here in Moscow.

What are the steps you typically go through to create a new level?

Again, I can’t tell you about current techniques. When I did make levels, I would either come up with a basic foundation of story and theme. Often, though, these would have already been decided by a design group. Then I would look for reference material, usually visual, of places similar to what the level will be. Then layout the basic geometry, then texture, lighting, etc. Then playtest, playtest, playtest.

You worked for Bauer Aerospace as the supervisor of software engineering for several years. Was it a difficult decision to make the move into the games industry?

No, not at all! It was like falling in love - there was no thinking about it. I packed up my 1989 Toyota van and shot down to Dallas, Texas.

Imps Skull from the GrayDOOM pack. Available for download

The quality of your Doom levels attracted the eye of Nick Newhard (Q Studios, Blood) and George Broussard (3D Realms). How did it feel to have your ability recognised and acknowledged in such a way?

It was fantastic, of course! I had finally found my way into the game industry :)

You worked as a contractor on Blood before moving into a full time position on Duke 3D at 3D Realms. Did any of the levels you worked on make it into the retail edition of Blood?

No, nothing survived. It was a tough choice, whether to go to Seattle or Dallas, but I picked Dallas.

When you accepted the position with 3D Realms it caused some friction with the Blood team?

They weren’t happy about it, but they never expressed any grief to me. We’re still good friends today, too.

Which levels from Duke 3D are you most proud of?

All of them :)

Were you able to request certain Build engine features from Ken Silverman to support certain gameplay mechanics you wanted to use?

Sure, and Todd Replogle, too. It was a very close team, and we all supported each other.

You and several others made the decision to break away from 3D Realms and form your own studio Ritual Entertainment. What are your memories of this time and of how you came to this decision?

It was exciting to be out on your own. It was also scary. The best part, I think, was working on the add-on pack for Quake. I couldn’t believe I was working on an id project.

If you pay attention whilst playing Sin, you can spot this beautiful work of work in the Sinclair mansion. Thanks to Ross's Game Dungeon

SiN was an early hit for Ritual which unfortunately was quite buggy on it’s initial release. Did Half-Life on the horizon force an early release?

Yes, looking back, we really should have waited another month. It wasn’t just Half-life, though. Hitting the Christmas season was even more important.

Even in 2020 the level of detail and interactivity of the levels in SiN inspiring (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evvqlj2Kk6Q), at the time did you feel that you were pushing the envelope?

Of course... And always :)

Quarterdeck from Elite Force 2: Players are 25% of their normal size and must battle inside a model Enterprise whilst a seemingly giant Picard looks on

Elite Force 2 was another strong first person shooter from Ritual that features a decidedly gritter atmosphere than its predecessor. What do you remember to be the drivers for the gameplay and level design decisions?

I was not directly involved with Elite Force 2. By then, we had 2½ teams running. I did do a deathmatch level for it, Quarter Deck.

SiN Emergence arrived on the wave of episodic gaming that Valve and others were exploring, but ultimately few developers were able to make financially viable. With hindsight, would you have approached Sin Emergence differently?

That’s hard to say because everything is digital now.

Spotted at QuakeCon 97. Credit to Wendigo’s Quake Galleries

Working at Ritual with such talented people must have been a highlight of your career. What are some of your favourite memories and moments from those days?

We did seem to pull in many, many talented people. I think if you looked, you’d find former Ritual employees at many of the big developers now. I can’t think of individual memories. I only remember a lot of hard work and even more fun times.

With the creation of Becky Brogan: The Mystery of Meane Manor you’ve come full circle and been able to essentially work as an indie developer. How have you found this after working with larger teams for much of your career?

Working alone is a dream come true! No meetings to tell people what you have done and what you are going to do. You just do it. No commute. No documentation telling people what you are going to do. I was also in a special case of not having a schedule. I was mostly retired, and money was not a worry for me. I was able to work when I wanted to. I find that you can’t inspire creativity, it has to inspire you. I can’t just go to the office on Monday morning and be creative, like turning on a switch. As a lone developer, I could work 18-days for weeks, or work 2-hour days. I was also lucky in that I can write code, I’m slightly good with art (Photoshop stuff), and I can do design. It was a great time, me and Becky :)

Richard is a big fan of the Serious Sam series, something that Croteam very much appreciate

You were able to revisit one of your most famous games in recent years with Duke Nukem 20th Anniversary World Tour. How did it feel to be designing levels for Duke 3D again?

It was a real treat! The best part was using the Build engine. I really did some time tripping while making those levels. I’m a good level designer, but Allen Blum III is the real genius. Back in the old days, he was my go-to guy when I had questions about doing stuff in Build. We sat in the same room, and I would simply turn around to ask for help. While doing the World Tour, I actually would catch myself with an impulse to turn around to ask Allen a question in 2016. I’m in Moscow, and he’s somewhere in the States. We spent many hours back in 1995-96, and behaviors have been permanently etched in my brain :)

You’ve clocked up a number of “special thanks” credits for the Serious Sam games. What is your relationship with Croteam and the series?

I liked Serious Sam because it was a FPS with no fat; just a lot of guns and ammo, and a lot of bad guys. It was also very funny. I went from being a fan to being a friend.

If you had to pick one thing that you’ve produced in your career to be put into a museum to represent the pinnacle of your career, what would it be?

I guess that would be HIPDM1 “The Edge of Oblivion”, the deathmatch level for the Quake add-on pack. It’s my favourite because nobody thought it could be done - a big, wide-open level in which all the players could see each other at the same time.

2020 has been quite a year for everyone, what has it taught you?

Not much, actually. My natural state is to stay home and be as alone as possible. I was made for quarantine :)

The Levelord's timeless mastery of the Build engine can be enjoyed in Duke Nukem 3D World Tour and his most recent creation Becky Brogan - The Mystery of Meane Manor

His latest creative output can be found on Facebook and you can also enjoy videos of his games levels on his YouTube channel

Why not see twisted spawn of his levels in the latest Strife episodes on this website, featuring Duke Nukem and Doom Marine behaving badly as in this April 2021 comic