Mo is a level designer at Respawn but he would have been a doctor if it wasn’t for PC Gamer and his modding hobby. He was kind enough to provide a ton of screenshots from mods he did 10+ years ago, so you can see the origins of his work.
Abbie: So how did you get interested in level design?
Mo: I started with Duke Nukem 3D. It came with its level editor and some really poor documentation. But I was young and had all the time in the world, so I read through the 100 pages or so and started making my house. And that’s where it took off. My friends loved it and I thought: “What else can I make that my friends love?” So it started with Duke Nukem and then Quake and after Counter-Strike, the Half Life modding thing got huge. So that’s where my interest really took off.
Mo: Never stuff people asked me to make, just whatever inspired me and what inspired me at the beginning was like silly things like my school, my neighborhood, my home, my friend’s house. That’s what we thought would be cool to run around in.
Abbie: Like a writer writing what they know.
Mo: Yeah, and the older I got, 18, 19, that’s when I started building more what you would consider to be MP maps of today.
Abbie: Did you have a favorite? Or one that stood out?
Abbie: Was that a bad question?
Mo: No, I’ve just made so many levels. There was this one, I don’t know why it pops out in my mind but I made this king of the hill Stonehenge map. It was the most stupid map in the world. It was just a big mountain with Stonehenge at the top. I made it for a Quake mod site.
Abbie: So how did you decide to make video games professionally?
Mo: I was actually pre-med in college and on the road to becoming a doctor. It was something I was on the path to do since I was 18.
Abbie: Glad to know we’re taking away people from being doctors…
Mo: I was serious about it, too! I applied to 32 medical schools. No joke. But I always made levels for mods as a hobby. I never took it as a serious career path. I didn’t think I was good enough. To be honest, I thought whoever made games was light years better than me. So I sent off my last application to med school and I go to my mail box and there was my issue of PC gamer. I’m flipping through it, sitting in my college apt and they had this entire section on mods and mod teams (again this right after Counter-Strike came out, mods were very popular) and they had this 10-page section and the mod I was working on…no one even told me…it was in there. Every single picture of that mod was one of my levels. I was like “Holy crap, maybe I am good enough!” I never thought I was. And then next page was an ad for Full Sail and I ended up deferring my acceptance to medical school for a year and I went to Full Sail and the rest is history. I came out to California and started working at Infinity Ward.
Mo: Yeah, I got lucky. It’s amazing to consider what would have happened. I had to lie to my parents. I told them I didn’t get into medical school because they already wanted to kill me. “I’m not going to become a doctor, I’m going to go make video games.” They were pissed! But after Call of Duty 2 came out, they were really proud of me. Now they’re for it. We have enough doctors in the family, we don’t need a third one.
Mo: Pure luck. I went to Full Sail to learn how to program, right? And because at first when I started level designing, I knew the artistic side but I had a limit where I couldn’t do more than the original program allowed, so I wanted to learn to program so I could do more. Then at FS I fell in love with programming, so I stopped actually making levels for a year or two. I picked up java script at the time and I applied everywhere as a programmer. I got accepted at a couple companies but at Infinity Ward, they told me “You’re not really good enough to be a programmer, but you know enough programming to be a scripter.” I had no idea what the hell that meant…but they looked at my level design stuff, which happened to be a part of my resume and said “You’d make a good level designer here cause the level designers at IW make both geo and script.” Again, they just came off Call of Duty (1) and they had less than 30 employees. I got lucky. After Call of Duty 2 came out the people we were interviewing and turning down, I was those people. No way I would have gotten a job at IW after that. I got so lucky. But once I was there I learned so much and I’m so glad they kept me around.
Abbie: Was it tough going from building your own modded levels to being a paid, professional level designer?
Mo: Yes and no. It was tougher and easier. Easier in the sense that I’d say “Man, I really wish I had this model…” and boom! Somebody would make it for me. “I really wish I had this texture…”
Boom! Somebody makes it for me. It was awesome. It was tough that my levels weren’t my baby anymore. I had to give up part of the ownership to a lot of people working on it, but in the end that made it better. It made something I can be even more proud of. And then the other part that was really hard at first, coming off the mod scene, was the criticism. I was so not used to the level of criticism at a professional game company and it was really hard to swallow at first. Pride swallowing. But it was something I did and I immediately saw my levels become exponentially better when I took the criticism. So I was like “No matter how much it hurts, I’m always going to listen”.
Abbie: So what are your favorite games?
Mo: I have two favorites, in this order, Shadow of the Colossus and Ico.
Abbie: Great games. What makes them stand out to you?
Mo: I guess the first thing about them is a je ne sais qua. Once you pick those games up you either love them or hate them. I love them. They’re not like any other game you’ve ever played. Even though they’re similar to each other they’re also completely different from each other. And there is not another game like Shadow or Ico. It’s hard to explain the simple beauty that they have.
Abbie: Do you tend to gravitate towards really unique, different games?
Mo: Honestly, no. I’m usually a real fan for whatever everyone else is playing. But those games, they struck a chord with me. I can’t wait for The Last Guardian.
Mo: Yeah, I never play a game twice.
Mo: That’s just not me. Once I play through single player I never play a game again. I can watch a movie a million times, but I lose myself in a game and once it’s over, I can’t get that feeling back.
Abbie: What about multiplayer?
Mo: I suck at multiplayer. Which is ironic because I used to compete in the CPL (Cyberathlete Professional League).
Abbie: Really? Even though you suck at multiplayer?
Mo: Yeah, I used to be amazing at Counter-Strike but I lost all my twitch reflexes.
Abbie: What else do you do outside work?
Mo: I watch UFC and do martial arts: Jiu Jitsu and Taekwondo. I’ve been doing Taekwondo for 22 years and Jiu Jitsu and boxing for two.
Abbie: Wow. There are a lot of really lethal people in this office.
Mo: (laughs) Yeah. There are. I’d say the person who probably has as much martial arts experience as me is Ryan (Lastimosa). Geoff (Smith) is really good at Jiu Jitsu. Ryan is the most rounded.
Abbie: So what is the correlation between video games and martial arts?
Mo: Maybe because of the correlation between being a geek and video games and getting beat up. My name is Mohammed and I used to live in the deep south. I got my ass kicked, so I needed to learn martial arts.
Abbie: You got picked on for being a geek or because people were racist?
Mo: A little from column A, a little from column B. Being a geek didn’t help. Being 5’5” didn’t help either. I went back to my 10 year high school reunion and I went to an accelerated magnet school so everyone there is doctor, lawyer, doctor, lawyer, politician and they’re all like “So Mo, what do you do now?” and I’m like “I make video games!” and they’re like “That’s awesome!” and my response is YES IT IS. YES IT IS. I love my job. Nothing is better.
Mo: Yeah…I don’t play as many games as I used to. It’s only the rare MP game that will get me addicted. All my creative juices and passion for gaming is 8 hours every day at work. I did just play Amnesia: The Dark Descent.
Abbie: I know you like horror games. What are your favorites?
Mo: Everybody talks about Silent Hill 2…for me it was Fatal Frame.
Abbie: I loved Fatal Frame!
Mo: FF scared the piss out of me. Because you have to stand in one spot and wait for this thing to attack you and take the picture.
Abbie: Are you with me on wanting a WiiU version where you could use the tablet as the camera? And that’s where you would see the ghost?
Mo: Didn’t even think of that. I would love that.
Abbie: Did you play many games as a kid?
Mo: Atari…there’s this picture of me, sitting on the edge of the bed, my feet don’t touch the ground, mouth open, with my Atari joystick. That’s the birth of the game designer right there.
Mo: A couple things. The first thing is “be honest with yourself and be serious about it.” It’s hard work. It’s not easy. I know a ton of guys who want to make video games who say they have all these great ideas…but a lot of people have great ideas but you need to be willing to put in the time to pull it off. Go to school, don’t go to school, join a mod team, don’t join a mod team, there are a million and one ways to do it, but the number one most important thing is: Don’t go to school thinking it will get you a job. It won’t. YOU are going to get you a job. YOU are going to make the awesome levels. YOU are going to be an awesome programmer because you’re going to work your ass off for it, because you love it. And a portfolio is incredibly important. ANYONE who is serious about making games has something. They have a level for a mod or a thing they coded so they could have fun with it…a TI 82 calculator game they made. SOMETHING. If you don’t have a portfolio is shows that you aren’t really serious about it.
Abbie: Non-sequitor: What did you think of the last Harry Potter movie?
Mo: ****ING LOVED IT. I love Harry Potter, I’m so sad that it’s over.
Abbie: Favorite HP movie?
Mo: I can’t answer that.
Abbie: Favorite book?
Mo: I don’t read the books, they’ll ruin the movie. (laughs) I’ll tell you what…I love movies, I’m a huge movie buff. I can tell you every line in Inception, I’ve seen it over 200 times.
Abbie: WHAT? 200?
Mo: Five times in the theater and on repeat, 5 times a day for the last 6 months.
Abbie: Do you sleep?
Mo: I keep it on in the background at work. Through osmosis, I learned every line. Back to Harry Potter…I purposely stay away from the books, I stay away from reading anything online…
Abbie: But the books came before the movies!
Mo: I know, but I don’t talk to people who’ve read the books. I walk away. I do not want to know until I see the movie. This one day I’m on the couch at my dad’s place and he reads the books and I decided I’d read a bit of the books because everyone says they’re better than the movies, they’re so good, the writing is so well done…
Abbie: They’re really good…
Mo: So I pick up ONE book, flip to ONE random page, I read ONE line and that line is something like: “As we were walking over Dumbledore’s grave…” AGHH.
Abbie: Don’t you know how books work?!
Mo: I didn’t think I would come across that in one line!
Abbie: If you were going to check out a movie on DVD would you skip to the 10th chapter and watch a scene there?!
Abbie: Favorite movie of all time?
Mo: Conan the Barbarian
Abbie: Why is that your favorite movie?
Mo: I don’t know. I can’t describe it in away where someone wouldn’t say “But there are tons of movies like that.” I really like the character. I think tough guys in movies are often poorly written. They do a lot of talking and that makes them weak. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t say a word in the movie, he just stabs people.
Abbie: Well you could have a tough guy dichotomy of the politican and man of action…
Mo: I grew up in rough neighborhoods as a kid and the guys who were really tough never talked to you beforehand. They would just punch you in the face. I hate when the tough guys have all these guns but they take ten minutes to monologue before they shoot at the dude. It’s why I like the new Bond movies…he doesn’t do the whole snarky comeback lines, he just kills people. I like movies that do tough guys well and Conan is the toughest man of all time.
If I had unlimited space for this interview you’d spend the next hour reading about the action movie legacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger and our shared love of martial arts movies, but these can’t go on for ever. Feel free to post Harry Potter spoilers in the comments, as Mo has seen all the movies now.