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Insight: Jolyon Myers, video game designer

'Exploring the worlds I design is wonderful'

Los Angeles-based British video games designer Jolyon Myers, inset, was a key programmer on the wildly successful Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. MW3 beat all sales records at the end of last year, earning $400m in its first day of sales and reaching $1bn in 16 days. Here he explains how he designed two of the virtual cities featured in the game – Paris and London.

The Paris mission that I worked on takes place from two different perspectives: from the air and on the ground. Our first job was to choose the path of the journey that would dictate the gameplay, directing where detail was needed and what would be seen from a distance. We used mapping software to plot a path and then used satellite imagery as a template for the scale. From this I would block out the buildings and roads in a very simple form. We'd use the basic building blocks to start adding movement and gameplay at that point and see if it is working. When we were happy, I would add more detail.

I had previously worked on building Paris on a grand scale for a game called The Sabateur, so that didn't seem as daunting to me as it might have to someone else. However, the London street was definitely something more personal. I absolutely insisted I work on it, as London is my favourite city, although it did also have its challenges. While I wanted to build something exactly from reality, the game required a fair bit of modification to make it work for the player.

The choices made in creating an area to make it feel authentic are tricky and are probably similar to those faced by set designers in the movie business. In fact, I visited the set for the recent MW3 live action trailer (starring Sam Worthington and Jonah Hill) and you could see the fun they were having making a New York street set look war-torn.

It's the detail in surface textures, the layout of props and the lighting that takes a fair bit of time. Every prop should have some kind of story for why it is there and every surface needs to convey why it looks the way it does. But it is also a fun and creative part of the process – and the part where you really start seeing your scene come to life.

With London, it was really fun making such a detailed street, which included everything I and my British mates in the office could think of. We'd get together and get really excited about adding objects, like the little yellow fire hydrant "H" signs and "To Let" signs. It's the little things...

Being able to play in the spaces I create is probably the defining part of why I do what I do. When I first started designing and making art for video games, I aspired to move into special effects, as the way we create has similar tools and processes.

The thing that held me back from that industry was the amount of creative input I am able to make in video games. Exploring the worlds I've designed and tweaking them to make them even more interesting is a wonderful part of the job. It's even more amazing when you are building an area that you love, as you are constantly reliving memories from the past, both during and after its creation.

There are plenty of challenges left. No matter how great games look these days, absolute realism in the characters and environments are still elements we aspire to and know will improve constantly in the future.

Artificial intelligence combined with ever more complicated animation systems will also continue to progress. The trick with a great game such as Modern Warfare, though, is to make sure it's fun, no matter how realistic everything gets. As I was told when I first joined [games developer] Infinity Ward, "Gameplay is king".

The gap between what we imagine and what we can develop is minimal. However, if the aim is absolute graphical realism, then there are always some elements that can be improved, much in the same way that special effects in movies from 10 years ago look dated now, even though you thought they were ultra realistic at the time. For game design, I do think we are at a point where it's harder to think of things that we can't do from a pure gameplay perspective.

In my early years, most of the games were two-dimensional, which really limited game design. Now, the restrictions are way less and, ultimately, what you imagine probably can be achieved.

The biggest leap in the experience for me will be the revival of virtual reality – headsets, glasses or whatever else they come up with. It's something that was attempted some time ago, but the consoles/PCs were not powerful enough and the technology for the headsets was lacking and too expensive. Surely now it must be almost cheap enough to become a common household item? If I could I'd create a London pub interior with the graphic tech I have today, but be able to relax in it virtually with a lightweight headset on and a pint.