2011/03/06

Interview with a Game Programmer

One of my cousins asked to interview me for a school project, since I'm a real game programmer now! I went all-out on these questions and thought I'd share them here, so if you know anyone who's considering a career in games or programming, feel free to send them over for a bit of behind-the-scenes with a recent college grad who has just broken into the game industry.

Needless to say, the views expressed here are my own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fugazo, Inc.

What is your name and job title?

My name is Alex Cho Snyder and I work as a Game Programmer at the casual game development studio Fugazo, Inc.

How long have you had this job?

I started this job on August 9th, 2010, so I've been working at Fugazo for about six months.

Please explain what a typical day of work is like for you.

I have breakfast at home, pack a lunch, and take the bus downtown to the office. I usually get there around 9:30am, but time is pretty flexible there, so it's no problem if you get there a bit late. I go to my desk - all our desks are together in the same big open-studio-style room - turn on my computer and wait for it to start up so I can check my work email, download the latest images and files that my teammates have added to the project from the SVN repository, and start up Visual Studio, which is kind of like Microsoft Word for programming code. I also look through my work notebook to refresh my memory about what exactly I've been working on and what I was thinking about the day before.

I work on a team of about three or four other people, making Fugazo's next hidden-object adventure game. There are about two other such teams at Fugazo, each working on a different game. Each time has one designer, one programmer, and two or three artists. I'm a programmer. I like to think of it in comparison to building houses. The designer is the architect, who draws the plans for the house and manages the overall process. The artists are the ones who prepare the pieces of the house - boards, doors, roofs, siding, etc. And the programmer - me - is the contractor putting the pieces together and actually building a functional house. I like building things, so it works out. But I really don't like remodels, where I'm taking an old building that someone else made and have to tear out old parts of the building and fix it up and add new rooms and features. You never know if one wall or pillar is okay to take out or if the whole building will collapse when you do. That's the annoying part.

In more specific terms, my designer will come to me with a feature or puzzle or something that he wants me to add to the game, and describe exactly what he wants while I ask questions until I feel like I understand completely. I usually like to write out the details of the task in my notebook by hand, because it helps me wrap my brain around the problem. Then I'll either start writing ideas for possible solutions, or look through the existing code of the game to get a better understanding of how the solution will have to fit in. Then I start actually writing code, and testing it out. Most of my time is spent going back and forth between thinking about the problem, reading code, and writing code. If I get stuck I'll ask the designer for clarification, or talk to our lead programmer to ask how he would recommend solving the problem. Once I've got something actually working on screen, I'll show the designer and ask him for feedback. Either he'll suggest more things to change, or he'll give me the next feature he wants me to build.

At noon we have an hour for lunch, and I often walk down to a nearby alternative school to volunteer-teach game programming to some middle-school kids. After that I'm back to work, until around 5:30pm when everyone leaves and I take the bus home or to martial arts practice for exercise.

What have you enjoyed most about your occupation?

That is a hard question for me to answer. I love thinking of ideas for games, and hashing out designs with teammates, but as a programmer that is something I am rarely involved in directly. In my role as a programmer, my enjoyment comes from exercising my near-magical ability to create imaginary worlds that live inside a computer screen. When I have gained enough understanding and familiarity with my tools that this process is no longer a confusing struggle but a mildly stimulating problem to solve, I find this very enjoyable. This usually happens when I am asked to create a smaller puzzle within a larger adventure game, where I can visualize the end result I want and then figure out how to actually build it with computer code. When things are going smoothly, I can go from start to finish in this process within a day or two.

I like seeing the fruits of my labor up on the computer screen - the quicker and more immediate, the better. I like to take something that works, that I can see and play around with, and tweak it and adjust it until it's just right. It is very rewarding to me to see and appreciate and savor this thing I have created, and when I am deprived of that gratification for too long I can easily become frustrated. I'm quite stubborn, so I don't give up when things take a long time to sort out. That doesn't mean I have to like it, though! :p

Do you believe most of your fellow colleagues or workers enjoy their work? Why?

I think they do. But not necessarily in the way you might assume. Many people mistakenly conflate the fun of playing games with the hard work of making them. I like to compare the process of game development to cooking or baking. Most people love to eat pastries and cookies and donuts, just like most people enjoy playing games. But not everyone likes to bake those cookies, and not everyone likes to make games. If you want to become a baker, it certainly helps to like eating pastries. But it's not enough.

Some game companies are more like donut factories. They are not fun places to work. Fugazo, where I work, is more like a successful neighborhood bakery. The work isn't amazingly fun, but it's usually interesting, and the people are nice, and it's not a bad place to be all day. And at the end of a project, after a few months, you have a finished game that's pretty cool and you can feel proud of it and show your friends and family and all that. And you get to think about games all the time.

If you could change anything about your occupation what would it be?

If I could make games without ever having to sit at a desk and stare at a computer screen, I would. If I could run around in a virtual forest, climb inheritance trees and swing from conditional branches, build towers with blocks of code, and just use my physical body and my stereoscopic vision and my musical ears and my agile primate fingers, I would be so much happier. I love plants; I love being outside. I also love the ability to create virtual worlds that other people can experience, through computers. But every minute that I spend in front of a computer screen is a sacrifice that I make in exchange for this power to shape (virtual) reality.

More realistically, if I never had to renovate another programmer's poorly encapsulated user interface code, that would be awesome. Most frustrating part of my job right there. Also, if I had more teamwork throughout the day, I think I would enjoy that. I love collaboration, and I get just enough of it to avoid feeling unbearably lonely throughout the day, but I really get very little. There's something called pair programming where two people share a computer and take turns writing code and observing, and I've done that a few times in school and I think I'd very much like to do that again. However, it's obviously not as feasible in a small company like Fugazo where each game has only a single programmer to work on it.

Have you gone back for more educational training since you began the job?

Nope. For me, working at this job is all the educational training I need! It has been at least as educational as an equivalent time at school was, in the six months I've been at Fugazo. In computer programming, school can be essential to getting started, but once you're actually working, you should be learning a lot as you gain experience and your company starts branching out to new technologies and platforms. At the least, you can learn a lot from your own side projects as well.

What educational background do you have?

I graduated from the University of Washington with a Bachelor's degree in Computer Science. It took me a little less than five years at the UW to decide on my major, take all my required classes, and graduate. Throughout college, however, I had a summer internship or two working as a programmer and also made quite a few of my own games on the side, which is crucial if you're trying to get a job after graduating. Just a Computer Science degree doesn't cut it. You need to have experience working at a programming job, at least as an intern, and show that you have the passion, skill, and discipline to make your own games in your free time.

If you won the lottery and did not have to work, would you? Explain.

For a while, at least. ;) I decided to look for a job last summer so I could earn money, spend my days working on a team instead of by myself, and get experience learning from people who know what they're doing instead of fumbling around on my own. The lottery would only take care of one of those things. My life's work is to change the world through games. The most important thing I can do right now is to hone my skill at designing and programming games, and become fluent in all other aspects of the process as well. I will work at a company for as long as I need to until I'm ready to strike out on my own and form my own team, and I can't imagine finding a better place for that than Fugazo right now. A lot of game companies are not fun places to work. Fugazo is a notable exception.

What kind of strategies do you use when your job gets stressful?

Programming is often frustrating and can easily get stressful if you are not careful. I find it important to take breaks whenever I am really stuck or not thinking clearly, and I find that taking a walk right before lunch is very helpful in clearing my head. I also have started giving myself permission - with my boss's encouragement - to take short naps when I feel sleepy, especially in the afternoon. When it comes to jobs like programming that consist almost entirely of difficult problem-solving, it is often much more efficient to take a twenty-minute nap and come back refreshed than to fight back sleep deprivation for three hours without getting anything done. As with any sort of activity that involves sitting at a computer and staring at a screen all day, I've also found it very helpful to take a few minutes every so often to get up and move around, do some handstands, stretch, get my blood flowing, and help loosen whatever mental rut I might have gotten into while hunched over at my desk.

In your career field, is it difficult to balance work with home/family or personal life?

The game industry is one of the most notorious when it comes to poor work-life balance. This is a problem that is slowly improving, but it is definitely a real concern. Many companies, because of poor scheduling, can have months of forced "crunch time" at the end of a project, where people are working evenings, even weekends, continuously until the game is finished. Obviously, this is a very bad thing and it is arguably counter-productive in the long run, but many companies still do it. Even at Fugazo, where I work now, there may be a week or two of crunch at the end of a project, where I stay late in the evenings, but I've never worked weekends. Even then, no one is forcing me to stay late - I choose to keep working because I have a long list of things I want to get done, and I tend to be a perfectionist about these things. And I'll usually be the only one working late on most occasions, since no one is forced to crunch.

Outside of extreme circumstances like crunch time, I do often struggle to balance work and personal life. I wouldn't necessarily attribute this to the game industry itself. I think this has more to do with my inexperience (I've been working full-time for less than a year) and my tendency to cram way more things into my life than I could reasonably have time for. Though maybe the game industry tends to attract people like me anyway, so who knows!

What was it like when you went to high school? What kind of career planning did you have in high school?

I started high school about eight years ago. Back then, I wasn't thinking about jobs at all, but I knew that I wanted to do something with games. At the time I was doing a lot of programming on the graphing calculators we used in math class, making little games and releasing them online. I was also starting to read about using games for education and social change and became inspired to make that my life's work. As it turns out, those were the perfect things to be doing if I later wanted to start a career in game development!

What do you feel is most important when choosing a career?

There are a lot of ways to think about this question. One approach that I like is to think of something that you could see yourself getting really good at, if you spent the next ten or twenty years doing it for a living. That doesn't mean something you are already good at, necessarily, but something that you could see yourself learning to get really good at. I started learning to make games about ten years ago. The reason I choose to make games for a living now is not that I'm particularly good at it now, but I could see myself becoming really good at designing and making games over the next ten years. And that has less to do than the skills I currently have, and more to do with my passion and what I'm excited about and what I enjoy doing and learning and thinking about in my free time.

If you really love to do something, chances are that you could get really good at it - that if you kept doing it for a living over the next ten years, you wouldn't get bored and drop out - you'd keep learning and exploring and getting better and better as time goes on. I wouldn't suggest that you think about money right away. The jobs that tend to make a good amount of money are the jobs where you can keep getting better and better, where someone who is really good, with a lot of experience, can be worth ten or a hundred times what someone might be worth when they're just starting out. Like programming. Or game design. And you're going to have a hard time getting better and better unless you really love doing what you're trying to do. So try a bunch of things, find out what you love to do, and then ask yourself, "Which of these things could I really become good at, if I did this for a living for the next ten years?" Start there.

What advice do you have for me as I think about my future education and career plans?

Explore! Try lots of things, read about lots of things, ask lots of people about the things they do, and follow your curiosity when something attracts your interest. I was in fourth grade when I first learned that it was possible to make your own computer games. Before that, I guess I just assumed they spontaneously materialized in the store, fully formed, like action figures or LEGO sets. But once my eyes were opened to this possibility, I started reading every book I could find about how to make games, buying educational software, signing up for programming classes. At the time I had no idea what I was doing so my efforts were surprisingly ineffective, but I was persistent. I just wouldn't give up. And this interest gradually grew from a drip and a trickle here and there into a full-fledged flood of obsession that has significantly shaped my life and taken me to where I am right now.

But game development was not the only field that caught my interest. In high school, for example, I read tons of books on biology, philosophy, and how the mind works, just because I was so fascinated by these subjects. I thought I'd end up studying evolutionary biology or psychology or neuroscience in college, even though I ended up in computer science. And there's nothing wrong with that. In middle school I was big into music, and I started learning to make bamboo flutes in high school. Throughout the last several years I've been doing a lot of martial arts practice. And I'm still working as a programmer. But the key is to keep exploring. Be curious. There are so many things you could do with your life. Your life's work and passion may turn out to be something you've never even heard of yet. Before fourth grade, I'd certainly had no idea that I could make a living making games. If I hadn't been willing to explore, I would never have found this path.

And, if you want to get a job in the game industry, the best thing you can do right now is start making games. I made my first computer game in sixth grade. It wasn't a great game, but it was something, and I learned a lot in making it. And more importantly, after that I made another one. And another one. And another one. If you don't know how to make computer games, go and find out how. Look online, read books, take classes - whatever you can find. There are so many more resources out there now than there were ten years ago when I was starting out. Download a free tool like Game Maker to get started - you don't even need to learn programming. Or make board games, and test them out with your friends - no programming required. Just make games, and keep making games, and by the time you are actually trying to convince someone to hire you, you will be able say, "Look at this. I made this. And this, and this, and this."

If you want to make games, make games.