“Virtual Reality Code Magician”
Hey, Scott! I want to thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.
“Hi, Marcus. It’s my pleasure.”
I’ve been excited to talk to you in this format. When I first met you a few years back I found you very interesting. One of the few African-American programmers, I’ve met. Could you please tell me what is your current job title?
“Its cliche, but I learned to be cautious about who I choose to start a business with.”
What other titles have you worked on in the past?
“I’ve been in the industry for about 8 years. The first game I worked on professionally was Stargate Worlds, an MMORPG based on the Stargate SG-1 TV show. After that I worked for Kaos Studios on Homefront. I left Kaos Studios to start my own indie studio, Enemy Airship, in order to develop a game called Shadow Physics. After that I briefly worked on Project Copernicus at 38 Studios.”
I didn’t know you worked on Shadow Physics! I think I remember a demo being shown at GDC a few years back. Very clever. What happened there? The concept seemed very original, although it seemed like it needed a bit more exploration in the game design.
“It was a fun concept to develop and generally something I’m still very proud of. It started from a conversation I had with the co-developer of the game, Steve Swink. The concept fascinated me and a couple of years after that conversation I decided to prototype the game. It was shown at the Experimental Gameplay Workshop at the Game Developers Conference in 2008, and that in combination with a viral Youtube video generated a lot of press attention. Microsoft shortly contacted us about getting the game on Xbox Live Arcade. This took place during the early formation of Indie Fund and they agreed to fund the project after it was greenlit on XBLA.
Wow! Indie Fund, that’s a pretty big deal.
“It was and still is in many situations. Especially in 2010 when it wasn’t clear if crowdfunding would work for indie games. I know that sounds funny now, but I actually got access to Kickstarter in beta during that time and it wasn’t clear if I could raise more than five or ten thousand dollars.”
So, being part of Indie Fund gave you access to some unexpected perks. How did you find the working relationship with Indie Fund?
“Although I’m grateful for the opportunity and the funding, and Indie Fund consisted of highly talented and successful developers that could, at times, have great insight and provided useful mentorship, I was generally unhappy with the working relationship because it put me in a position I wasn’t comfortable with. Looking back at it a lot of it is small business founder problems 101, but the working situation with Indie Fund, as investors, exasperated that.”
Hindsight is 20/20. What would you say was the biggest lesson you’ve learned from that experience?
“Its cliche, but I learned to be cautious about who I choose to start a business with. This isn’t to say that Enemy Airship couldn’t have worked out better than it did, but I think because of some of the hype surrounding the game and the desire to jump straight into full development we didn’t establish a solid enough working relationship before we had a lot of pressure to succeed and ship the game.
“I’ve gone into detail about what happened with project in a publicly available GDC talk (http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1015751/The-Failure).”
“I grew up in Chicago.”
Chi-Town! What part? Everyone I know you have to ask where in Chicago they live. It’s like they are fact checking.
“I’m from Lincoln Park, which is one of the most well off neighborhoods in Chicago. Even when I was growing up it was very heavily gentrified already. That’s become more pronounced over the years.”
Gentrification seems to be happening everywhere nowadays. From Chicago, I assume you graduated from high school, did you go to college?
“I went to college at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). I majored in computer science and dropped out of school in my junior year.”
Interesting, why computer science? And if you don’t mind me asking, why did you drop out?
“I wanted to make games from an early age, which came from early access to computers and game consoles and an active imagination. My mom is an artist and my dad is a journalist, so early on I also had an interest in art and storytelling. At around age 8 or 9 I became more aware of the need to program in order to make games, and by my teens I was obsessed with programming. So my interest in games lead to an interest in programming and computer science in general, which lead me to pursue a computer science degree. When I first enrolled in school in 2001, game development programs were rare and questionably respected. If I had started school five or ten years later I think I would have gone in a more game specific route.”
“I dropped out of school because I had an opportunity to work as a software engineer and a company in Chicago doing early mobile application development. This was in 2005, so it was years before iPhone or Android existed. The work was primarily early Windows Mobile, Symbian and Brew. The modern smartphone didn’t exist.”
It’s like you were drafted out of college.
“Hah, you could say that. It really started as a break from school that I’m still on 12 years later.
“Willingness to constantly learn new things and improve is extremely important for a software engineer.”
Nice, I can see how working in games could be seen as a break. If you could go back and do it again, would you do anything differently?
“At the time I was interested in the proto-indie scene. This was before what we might think of indie now even existed. I worked on casual games part time after work. A couple of games, Boxen 3 and Dope Trail were available for sale. I entered the first 48 hour Ludum Dare when I was 18.”
I didn’t realized Chicago had an indie scene.
“I think now Chicago has a very strong indie scene. Back then it wasn’t many people. A lot of the more successful people were acquired by big casual game companies at the time like Big Fish games and Popcap. Much of the community was built around the Dexterity forums and later Indie Gamer Forums.”
Jumping back to the present, what is your typical workday like?
“My day to day work is very focused on programming. Although I have a couple of regular meetings I attend I mostly focus on writing code and working with artists and designers on tools and features.”
What is your favorite or most used development tools?
“I mostly work in C++ using Visual Studio, and that’s been the one constant throughout my career. At Sledgehammer Games I work with a variety of different languages primarily C++, Lua for user interface, HLSL for graphics, C# for tools and a custom language called GSC for gameplay scripting. We use a custom game engine that has been developed by various Call of Duty studios over the years. Throughout my career I worked on a lot of titles that used Unreal Engine 3. I’m a fan of both Unity and Unreal Engine 4 and I’ve dabbled in both for game jams and prototypes.”
What trait or skill is most important in your area of expertise?
“Willingness to constantly learn new things and improve is extremely important for a software engineer. When it comes to actual practice, the ability to break down systems in simpler parts and understand how complex systems work is invaluable. Reasoning and experimentation skills are important. Knowing how to debug and read documentation are two of the most important practical skills for getting this kind of insight into your code.”
Looking back, what have you found most challenging about your work experience in video game development?
“Shadow Physics as a project was definitely most challenging. I built most of the engine for an experimental game, which required a lot different skills and knowledge.”
“I’d be very ambitious and build a game that isn’t possible with today’s technology. I’d like to build a game where you can re-examine any point in your real life, make different choices and see how they play out. No one has ever built a game with infinite time and money so why not go big :).”
Looking back, what would you say was your biggest misconception around game development?
“I like to think I came into the industry relatively informed about practices and day to day work, but one thing that continues to surprise me is that even very successful, experienced developers that have been working on major franchises for years don’t usually have process completely figured out. There is a feeling that, at some point, game development becomes easy for the best developers, but this just isn’t true anywhere in the industry. Game development is always a hard process.”
If I were just starting out now, what advice would you give someone to become a programmer?
“There is a wealth of resources for a beginning programmer right now. Major game engines are freely available, there are many open source games big and small out there. My advice is start small, take advantage of those resources, read a lot of source code and make a lot of small games.
I completely agree. In some cases the only thing keeping you from making games yourself is a desire to make games and an internet connection. Thanks for your time, Scott. This was great.