What is your discipline/ job title? (What do you do as a game developer typically?)
My role is Senior Software Engineer. I’m a generalist & systems programmer, meaning I do a little of everything. I’m not focused on second-to-second gameplay, but underlying systems. I’ve done audio, memory management, user interface, and a bunch of other stuff. Typically whatever needs most attention. Day to day on The Lord of the Rings: Return to Moria™ I’m working on the systems that generate the world layout,, which is my primary responsibility. I also triage and investigate crash bugs.
What are some games you’ve worked on and do you have a favorite?
In the 32 years I’ve been in the industry I’ve worked at a number of places. Some games I’ve done are The Lord Of The Rings: Return of the King at Electronic Arts, and Spider-Man: Web of Shadows at Activision, as well as a bunch of more obscure titles. I actually met a lot of current Free Rangers working on Spider-Man, which shows you how tight-knit the gaming industry can be. Of everything I’ve worked on, my favorite is Star Control 2 – I wasn’t officially working on the project, but my friend was in QA and I kept going down at lunchtime to play the head-to-head mode, and I wound up getting a testing credit on it. Terrific game.
What are your top 3 video games of all time? This list is permanent and cannot be changed.
This is a tough question to answer. I almost want to cop out of this, but if I had to narrow it down to three I’d say:
Dwarf Fortress. I love building games, and I love procedural worlds and emergent gameplay. DF is such a pure commitment to the essence of procedural generation. The creators really stuck to their vision and I really admire that.
Portal. A perfectly polished short-and-sweet experience, with fresh game mechanics, laugh-out-loud funny. Some games have narrative twists that retroactively reframe the story; Portal retroactively reframes the gameplay halfway through, and you realize you’ve basically been playing a tutorial up to that point. Honorable mention to Half-Life and Left 4 Dead. It’s sad how much stuff Valve figured out 25 years ago about player experience that other games just overlook.
Okay, fine, Kerbal Space Program. I’m a rocket nerd.
How did you get into game dev?
Kinda accidentally. I’d had a home computer (TRS-80) since I was 11 years old and we’d get magazines with game program listings that we could enter in. Along the way I started to understand what we were entering and started making changes. I’d see I had 3 lives and I’d turn it up to 17 so I could play longer, my dad would get annoyed I wasn’t typing in what he was dictating to me. Back in the late 20th century I was working at a company that developed disk controller cards for PCs, and one of the guys there had come from games, he had worked at Strategic Simulations. He went back to games, working for Accolade, and they had an opening for a junior programmer, so he gave me a call. I’ve been in games ever since. It never had occurred to me that game development was a career path, I just got lucky that I ended up in it.
What did you study in school?
Very little. I was a terrible student, more interested in wargames, tabletop RPGs, science fiction and fantasy than in schoolwork. I was lucky enough to go to a sort of computer camp one summer when I was 9 or 10, and talked my parents into getting me a computer.
What do you love the most about your job?
I like being a force multiplier for other developers. Finding the answer that unblocks another engineer when they’re stuck, giving a designer a new feature that takes me an hour but saves them three. I pay attention to a lot of random discussions on our team Slack that aren’t necessarily in my wheelhouse, but every once in a while that puts me in a position where I can tell someone, “oh, if you’re doing XYZ, you should talk to so-and-so, because you’re going to run into this issue.”
What is the biggest lesson/ piece of advice you’ve learned?
This is my cop-out answer. The big lesson is that there’s no one big lesson. There are a whole bunch of little lessons. Game developers have all these little proverbs. One is: done is better than better. Along the same lines, keep things simple. Start with the easy route, and if it turns out to be inadequate we can always add more and work on it later.
What’s your work philosophy? What do you try to keep in mind when working on a game?
Again, lots of little things. Everything is going to be harder than you think it is, so again keep things simple. Reuse and extend features you already have to do new things. When designers ask for something new, think about what they’re asking for in a slightly abstract, fuzzy way, and compare it to what’s already there. Can they do what they want with what’s there? Is there a small change you can make to cover both the old and the new use case?
What are your favorite types of games to make?
In general, I’d rather work on smaller games with a few polished systems, instead of a big, kitchen-sink, four-year development cycle.
What do you wish more people knew about your job/ game industry/ games in general?
That everything in a game is more complicated than it looks on the surface. Players run up against a rough edge in a game and say “why didn’t they just do this obvious thing?” 9 out of 10 times, we wanted to do the obvious thing, but there was some complication that meant we couldn’t, or it would have caused some worse side effects. We debate these decisions from both design and technical perspectives constantly. We’re doing the best we can.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Over the past few years at Free Range Games I’ve really come to appreciate the way each developer approaches things. Everyone has different strengths that we can rely on for different things. At past companies, people felt interchangeable, but here we’re really appreciated for having different perspectives and ideas. Some people are more diligent, some are a little more by the seat of their pants, others ask great questions. Having a team of people who see things differently is really valuable. It’s been a lot of fun working on this game with this team.