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Interview: Ian Fischer

Just who is this Ian Fischer guy? As most of us know, he is the Lead Designer on Age of Mythology, the upcoming RTS from the gang at Ensemble Studios, but where did he come from and how did you manage to get such a great job? Our thanks to Ian for taking some time out of his very busy schedule to answer a few questions about himself, his work, and his current project.

Thunder -- Hiya Ian! Can you give us a bit of a Bio? Perhaps your education, the fabled tale of how you got into the games biz and how long you've been with Ensemble Studios.

Ian Fischer -- I grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. After about age 12, I spent my summers and weekends working in the family construction business and that extended stint of hole digging, shingle carrying, and foundation tarring was more than enough to convince me that college was the right place for me after highschool. So, off to Pitt I went and there I earned a dual major in Political Science and English Writing.

After that, I went into the Navy and put my education to work learning how to locate and explode Soviet submarines. Sitting in front of what looks very much like an old Vectrex and waiting for a Russian sub to appear turned out to be far less exciting than I imagined (especially since the entire Soviet fleet was rusting in port at the time and thus exceedingly unlikely to show up on sonar), so I volunteered to become a rescue swimmer. Running 1000 miles a day while wearing huge steel-toe shoes and jumping into the ocean to get the life scared out of you by playful dolphins (which, trust me, look very much like ravenous sharks when they suddenly appear a few feet away from you) was a bit more exciting than listening for nonexistent submarines but still not really my life dream.

When I was discharged in 1997, I had to think a little about what I was going to do next because none of the job offers I had in front of me at the time (traveling water desalinization plant salesman, lifeguard, civilian training representative for a defense contractor) bore any resemblance to any of the jobs I’d ever thought of working (spy, ski bum, writer, mercenary, Batman). It eventually dawned on me that I’d spent just about every free moment of my life writing designs for games or working on scenarios for games or pestering friends to play games and that there were people who actually got paid for doing things like this. Shortly after my epiphany, I sent out some resumes, got a call from Tony Goodman, and packed a hockey bag full of old designs to take to my interview at Ensemble. (Demonstrating my thorough understanding of the gaming industry, I showed up for this wearing a dark double-breasted suit - I think they though I was there to arrest someone.) I came on at the tail end of Age of Empires, moved on to Age of Kings after that, and now I’m on the Age of Mythology team.

Thunder -- Whew, there's a long and winding road alright. Now, on to your current role with Ensemble Studios. What kinds of extra responsibilities are piled on the shoulders of a lead designer and who did you kill to get that position for AoM?

Ian Fischer -- Beyond generalities, there really isn’t a list of lead designer responsibilities; like most of our positions, it’s more a question of what needs to be done. My responsibilities on AoM have included involvement in any number of varied tasks: drafting a vision for the game, helping to schedule the project, writing the game’s design document, brainstorming with our art staff on what the game world and the units and characters that inhabit it should look like, helping to hammer together the story and dialog for the campaign, deciding what units the game should have and how they should work, coming up with an initial balance paradigm, figuring out how the civilizations should work and be different from one another, writing the design for the scenario editor, coming up with scenario concepts, and so on. Keep in mind that none of this is stuff I can claim entirely for myself; like most things at Ensemble, I was part of a team that worked on these things.

Thunder -- What are your favorite and least favorite parts of your job with Ensemble Studios?

Ian Fischer -- My favorite part of working at Ensemble is our crew. I spent a lot of time before ES working at places where the majority of the people I was around didn’t want to be there and, as long as they kept getting a check, could not have cared less about the work they did. Ensemble is a place where the guys around me are talented and motivated; they love what they do and they’re good at it. It’s nice - it’s like playing for the Steelers in the ‘70s.

I have no idea what my least favorite part of working at Ensemble is - I can’t think of anything to complain about that doesn’t make me seem like a sniveling jerk but I don’t want to say “I love everything” because that always makes it sound like you have corporate handlers editing your interviews. I hate the pens we have here, how about that? The supply closet is always full of giant-tipped, fat, inaccurate pens that make me feel like I should hold them in a fist and write on a Big Chief tablet. I hate those pens. Sometimes people adjust the thermostats around the office so that they’re set to a broiling 70 degrees too - I can’t take that either.

Thunder -- A lot of the folks at the Studios have pretty well known nicknames, from Captain Insano to Archangel. What is your nickname/handle and is there a story behind it?

Ian Fischer -- I generally subscribe to the “handle of the day” school of thought on these so I have any number of nicks. Given my last name, “Fish” is fairly common. I use “13” a lot -- when I was in the Navy, I was somehow the 13th guy for absolutely everything I was involved in, so I ended up with piles of t-shirts with my assigned number stenciled on them and the name then stuck.

Continued: More from Ian