John Meadows interviews Sean Smillie

18 Dec

Recently I got to sit down with John Meadows while he interviewed Sean Smillie. John was one of the writers on the LOST game, you can find an interview with him here. Sean is the lead designer and writer at Action Pants a Vancouver Development studio, though the official title on his card is Space Captain. It was a fascinating conversation between two successful writers and game industry veterans. It was also the funniest thing in the world to sit down with Vancouver’s two biggest Star Wars dorks.

Mr. Smillie tell us a little about where you are and how you got here.

Well I spent a while in the military. After that I was in Whistler for a couple of years working in snowboarding – marketing, teaching, riding and promotions. And then I saw the Matrix and that was it. I pretty much quit on the spot. Eventually I worked my way into a part time QA position at EA. After five years there I worked my way up to a designer/writer/producer role. That was an interesting time because at that point EA didn’t even have a job title of writer so I created my own job as I went.

Eventually I moved over to Propaganda as a senior writer and then I shifted to Action Pants, where I’ve spent the last year.

That’s quite a record. And I have to ask, what’s more stressful the army life or game production cycles.

Haha. Good question. Honestly, there’s some interesting similarities. I was in a combat engineering regiment so most of my time was spent in demolition work and that obviously that had associated stresses. Overall though I’d say production is more stressful- just less lethal! I love video game production role – including the stress that comes with it. The kind of headaches I have these days are the kinds of problems I look forward to waking up and solving.

What I notice is that there is a very similar camaraderie. There’s a strong sense of teamwork and dedication in both. Actually at EA we had a small mailing list for employees with a military background and we’d get together every couple of weeks. It was cool because there we’re people from Iraq to Finland but we all had similar experiences and we’re able to create a little community around that.

You’ve been through the whole gauntlet of the industry starting at the beginning. What’s your advice for aspiring game designers?

Hmmm. Well the times are changing. The industry as a whole is becoming more standardized and it’s getting harder to just kick the door open and gloriously announce your presence. Some kind of design training will go a long way, like the program at VFS or AI. Even that’s not necessarily enough though.

When I started on a part time short term contract at EA I would go home and spend six hours a night writing. Developing ideas I’d heard at work, conceiving new ideas, that kind of thing. Then when I finally got 10 minutes with the man who mattered I was able to show exactly how valuable I was. In fact he didn’t even like my ideas but he loved the energy and the effort. You have to prove your worth. And of course at the end of the day you can never underestimate the value of who you know. This industry is about contacts.

At one point a year or so ago I created a small mailing list for industry people to meet up every once in a while. The first Friday there was six people. Today that mailing list is about 1700 people long. Obviously not everybody comes out every time we get together but that’s the type of steps you can take to get to know those who work locally.

That sounds like a great list. How do people get invited onto that?

It’s all about building community. If anybody wants to be part of the list they just need to email me at and I’ll take the necessary steps.

That’s awesome. Speaking of EA, are they good or bad for the local industry?

Oh I think they’re great. They make some pretty high quality games, they employ a huge number of people, they’ve had a lot of ex-employees who have started new studios in town. And they bring a huge amount of press to the industry – which is great for everybody.

Ok, let’s switch gears a bit here. Game Design. What’s missing these days? Where is the industry headed?

You know what I think is missing? A six hour hook. With next gen power and current budgets we are able to do some really spectacular things in games but there’s still some formulaic hick ups. Games have got incredible introductions and endings aren’t that hard but what’s in the middle. Typically six hours into a 15 hour game you know exactly what the game is and what it will be. There’s no surprises midway through though.

Yeah, that’s what I loved about the first Halo. Half way through, the flood which nobody saw coming, just great story beats.

Exactly. The first Halo and Half Life 2. I use both of those games as a bar for compelling story telling. Both of those games we’re so much fun straight through. And really I’m the biggest sci-fi guy in the world but I am sick to death of space marines. There’s nothing striking about space marines.

So then what’s the most over rated game you’ve played lately?

Against all the odds I’ve played a string of great games lately. Halo 3, BioShock, Assassin’s Creed, Mario Galaxy, Call of Duty 4. They were all high quality games and a lot of fun. Not necessarily all my style but a clear level of craftsmanship on all those titles.

Actually I’ve got one. MotorStorm on the PS3. After all the hype I was seriously disappointed. “Look Mom, I can go in circles.” There really wasn’t much there.

The end of the year’s creeping up on us here. It’s the time for change and new projects. In the perfect world what would you work on next? Any licenses you would love to develop?

Well right now I’m really happy at Action Pants. We’re working on some great games, that of course I can’t talk about yet, and it’s a really great bunch of people. In a perfect world though… I have a sci-fi book series I’m writing and I’d love to develop that into a game. A series of games really. That’s my baby. And I know exactly what license I’d try to work on, John Carter of Mars. It’s from a series of books by the same guy who wrote Tarzan. It’s great stuff, a great adventure story, a perfect premise for a game.
I’d like to thank both John and Sean for their time. Best of luck in the New Year and remember… never cross to the Dark Side.


2 Responses to “John Meadows interviews Sean Smillie”

  1. Brian December 20, 2007 at 7:30 pm #

    Both of these men are my heroes… for multitudes of reasons. Great work gents.


    Dark side FTW.

  2. Mat March 4, 2010 at 10:24 pm #

    I met Sean. He’s a pretty cool guy. I’m hoping to go down and see him over spring break.

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